Rogues and Wild Relatives: Purity and wildness in early-20th Century Genetics

Following up on last year’s post about academic presentations and going into rooms and saying things, here’s a recording of some things I said in a room.


The talk is about genetics, plant breeding and different types of expertise pertaining to the domestication and breeding of plant varieties. The occasion was a small conference held at MIT earlier this year on Wildness. (Coincidentally, a new collection of the writings of one of the central characters in the story of Wildness has just been published, Frederick Law Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture and Society, and is reviewed nicely in the London Review of Books – subscription). If you’re interested, here’s the abstract for the paper:

In order for it to thrive, the first geneticists made promises about their new science. The most significant of these, in terms of immediate public recognition and reward, was that their discipline would revolutionise plant breeding. Not only would new, better, improved varieties emerge, so they argued, but problems facing earlier breeders (and farmers) would be systematically eliminated. This paper focusses on the latter, and the many-sided problem of rogues. Rogues, known to Darwin and Darwinians as atavisms and more colloquially as throw-backs, were out-of-type plants. The appearance of such tall, short or otherwise deviant plants in farm fields pointed, on a Darwinian account, to the re-emergence of a wild ancestral form. Varieties of plants which ‘rogued’ were said to be unfixed. Opposed on principle to the notion of ancestral influence, the first geneticists recast the appearance of such plants as a mundane issue of contamination, not from within, but from outside. The appearance of rogues pointed on this account to seeds having been accidentally mixed, not to wild ancestral influence.

At the same time that geneticists were attempting to close down debates about ancestral influence, stamping out the wild from their fixed varieties, they were keenly aware of the need for new plant materials. Genetics only offered to rearrange existing blocks of heredity; not to create new characteristics. If a geneticist wanted to breed a variety resistant to a certain disease, for example, then that character trait would have to be identified in a plant, somewhere, and imported into a commercial one. Situated firmly in the Darwinian eclipse, against ancestral influence and gradual selection, British geneticists nevertheless found they had to turn to plant collectors and wild relatives for the novel plant material they needed. Natural history, and wild biology, remained key.

This paper unpacks these two meanings of wildness for early geneticists – ancestral and bio-geographic – by focussing on the wheat varieties they produced. Physically, the new genetic crop varieties were hybridisations of materials drawn from international circulations of plant materials; crosses between exotic wheat plants (samples were even begged from the Himalayan expeditions) and American, Russian and English varieties. The new varieties were then promoted by geneticists, in the agricultural press and at farming shows, as purified and stabilised constructs, which would produce homogenous crops; fixed in the plant breeding sense in a way that could be explained by genetic theory and with all wild ancestry – except that desirable trait – theoretically and thoroughly eliminated.

The new genetic wheat varieties of the 1910s alert us to wildness internalised and wildness externalised, to wildness as contamination and as resource, and to wildness tamed; modernised. Wildness was also overwhelming to these early genetic constructions. The new varieties rogued just as much as the old varieties and tall growing plants refused their genetic explanation. Finally, wildness, in two senses, was meaningless. The first geneticists, in their focus on wild relatives, were part of a larger trend toward more efficient use of colonial resources, part of which was a ‘green rush’ to acquire and use colonial plant resources. Wildness in this context was often a mask which effaced communitarian and stewardship systems of plant development, which constructed, just as much as genetics could, the plants being used in geneticists’ breeding. Wild relatives were often not so wild at all. Secondly, despite the continuing rogue problem, genetic varieties and genetic theory were incredibly successful. At some point in the heyday of British plant genetic breeding this small internalised sign of wildness – rogues – became irrelevant to the success of new genetic varieties. Despite this decoupling, the connection between genetic plant breeding and purity, stability and homogeneity has endured and is only now, a century later, starting to become destabilised as some breeders are turning to mixtures, heterogeneity and on farm development in response to climate change.