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9 - The Laws of Inheritance and the Rules of Morality: Early Geneticists on Evolution and Ethics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 July 2010

Jane Maienschein
Affiliation:
Arizona State University
Michael Ruse
Affiliation:
University of Guelph, Ontario
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Summary

In analyzing the ways in which biologists have related their scientific knowledge to moral issues, historians have not paid much attention to the geneticists working at the turn of the twentieth century. Perhaps that has been because they have looked mainly at the influence of evolutionism on ethics, and students of heredity in the early part of the twentieth century supposedly had little interest in evolution, at least in Darwinian evolution (Bowler 1988). That may explain why most major works on evolutionary ethics have focused only on geneticists' interest in eugenics (Richards 1987), and some have even argued that biologists did not pursue evolutionary ethics at the turn of the century (Farber 1994). Whatever the reasons may have been, the existing literature suggests that geneticists were interested in the social implications of their science, but they tended to focus rather narrowly on eugenics, the manipulation of human breeding for social improvement.

My research has suggested a very different picture of the relationship between genetics and studies of evolution in general, and geneticists' interest in ethics in particular. Elsewhere I have argued that the apparent schism between genetics and studies of evolution in the first two decades of the twentieth century was an artifact of a historiographic approach that considered the ideas of William Bateson and T. H. Morgan to be fair representations of geneticists' views during that time (Vicedo 1992). Furthermore, Barbara Kimmelman and I have shown that many first-generation geneticists in the United States were deeply concerned with evolution and the potential for studies on heredity to illuminate evolutionary problems (Vicedo and Kimmelman 1993).

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1999

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