Domesticating the Wild Type: A Historical Investigation of the Role of the Domestic-Wild Divide in Scientific Knowledge Production
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
This thesis focuses on the role and historical development of strategies of experimental domestication in scientific knowledge production, with a particular focus on the function of the laboratory strains known as 'wild types' in the model organism systems of classical genetics, where they play the role of standing in for the 'natural' instance of the species so that variation may be measured. As part of establishing how lab wild types came to assume this role, I have situated them within a much longer historical trajectory that tracks how changes in the manner that European intellectual traditions conceptualised the domestic-wild divide were linked to the development of new forms of scientific domestication and knowledge production. These new developments required that existing domesticating practices be intensified, expanded and analogised in order to better control, capture and comprehend 'wild' nature. My first two chapters introduce the domestic-wild divide by discussing both contemporary and ancient interpretations of it. In my third and fourth chapter, I explore the roots of the knowledge regime of European scientific domestication. I highlight Francis Bacon's campaign to use knowledge of domesticating practices to restore human dominion, before showing how Linnaeus later re-conceptualised the natural economy as an autonomous order and original order, with domestication reinterpreted as an artful transformation of nature requiring human maintenance to prevent reversion to its wild 'natural state'. I identify this idea of the wild as original and the domestic as derivative and artificially maintained as the basis of the original wild type concept. In my fifth chapter, I discuss Darwin's attempt to unite the domestic and wild under common laws of variation and selection, including his argument that reversion was simply a product of a return to ancestral conditions of existence. I observe that Darwin's theory of variation was problematic for the effort to bring wild nature under controlled conditions for study, so in my sixth and seventh chapters discuss how this difficulty was resolved, first by experimental naturalists both before and after Darwin who utilised vivaria and microscopes to bring pieces of nature indoors, and then by Weismann and Galton's sequestration of heredity, which helped persuade scientists that domestication was not in itself a cause of germinal variation. In my eighth and ninth chapter, I detail how sequestration led the early Mendelians de Vries and Bateson to assume that wild types could be brought into the lab from nature and purified into true-breeding strains. I discuss their differing atomist and interactionist perspectives on wild type, with de Vries favouring 'elementary species' as units of nature, whereas Bateson held wild types and mutants to represent normal and abnormal forms of the species respectively. In my last chapter, I cover the replacement of Bateson's interactionist genetics by the reductionist genetics of the Morgan group and argue that this led to a disintegration of wild types into their component genes. I conclude with a discussion of what wild type strains in classical genetics were meant to be representative of, and end by establishing that whilst these strains may not wholly be representative of their species, they are nonetheless useful tools for scientific knowledge production.
PhD in Philosophy