More About Waddington: Socialism, Science, and Epigenetics

Excerpt from my book Epigenetics and Public Policy The Tangled Web of Science and Politics now available from my publisher here and at Amazon

The connections between the deep-seeded philosophical inclinations of C.H. Waddington and his eventual ‘discovery’ of epigenetics have been detailed elsewhere. Given these connections between his philosophy and his scientific work, it should be little surprise that there are similar connections between his politics and his science. These connections not only provide additional context for his scientific work, they also help to explain the icy reception of epigenetics when he first proposed it in the 1940s, given the nature of Waddington’s political inclinations and the geopolitical circumstances of the time. These connections in turn help to explain why epigenetics has only recently emerged within the last couple of decades, sixty years since Waddington initially proposed epigenetics as an intermediary layer between genes and the environment.

Science and socialism

Gary Werskey, in his extensive work on the “scientific socialists” of the 1930s,[1] describes the intertwined lives and careers of five prominent British scientists—J.D. Bernal, J.B.S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben, Hyman Levy, and Joseph Needham—who openly professed both a socialist politics and a socialist conception of science, and four of whom were formal members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Although Waddington is not one of Werskey’s subjects, he worked with Haldane and published a paper with him. He was close lifelong friends with Bernal, a pioneer in X-ray crystallography which played such an important role in the discovery of the double helix of DNA, and Needham, a specialist in embryology and morphogenesis as well as a respected sinologist, through an informal ‘club’ the three had founded while they were in school together in Cambridge in 1931.

Werskey concludes that the politics of these men did not directly influence their science, primarily because they worked in the mainstream of the science of their time. I suggest instead that while these men did make substantial contributions to the mainstream science of their time, there were also identifiable influences of their politics on their scientific work, and that these political influences are found in their common approach to biology. This convergence of politics, ideology, and biology—especially given how the geopolitical history of the world was to soon unfold—is also pertinent to the development of Waddington’s conception of epigenetics in the 1940s, and to the lack of acceptance of epigenetics until relatively recent. In the same way, this convergence of biology and ideology is equally pertinent to the development of the science of genetics as we now know it, which until the last decade or so more or less excluded epigenetics from serious consideration.

Waddington and the Theoretical Biology Club

This ‘club’ that Bernal, Needham, and Waddington (along with the philosopher of biology Joseph Woodger and the mathematician and biochemical theorist Dorothy Wrinch) formed while at Cambridge was called the Theoretical Biology Club. As the name denotes, the club was organized around discussions of both the philosophy and the science of biology that was just then emerging at that time. In particular, the primary theme or topic of this club was the discussion of the concept of organicism in biology. Organicism, which is related to the philosophy of organism of Whitehead described before, is the idea that wholes are greater than the sum of their parts, that “the properties of each part are dependent upon the context of the part within the whole in which they operate,” and that wholes exert some regulative control over their parts.[2]

Coincidentally or not, organicism applied to biology was championed by J.B.S. Haldane’s father, J.S. Haldane, an internationally respected physiologist also working at Cambridge at this time.[3] As a working natural scientist, the elder Haldane conceived of organicism through his work on the regulative processes of the body, and respiration in particular, in response to changes in the environment.[4] Haldane the father also saw organicism in biology as a much-needed middle way between the unscientific vitalism of Lamarckism and the overly reductionist and dualistic conception of biology which was then emerging in concert with genetics.[5] At the same time, as historian Peter Bowler observes, the organicism of the elder Haldane also coincided with his support for a social philosophy which advocated a significant role for the state in coordinating the actions of individuals to secure the greater good, in contrast to the prevailing liberal philosophy of extreme individualism which Haldane saw as leading to selfishness and expressive of the more avaricious aspects of humankind.[6]

Likewise, in addition to organicism in biology, another major topic of conversation of the Theoretical Biology Club was their shared socialist and Marxist beliefs, which they saw as inextricably linked with their views of biology. These ideological beliefs were not just sophomoric exuberances, though, but were deeply held sentiments which were maintained by all into their subsequent work as well-regarded scientists. For example, Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian detail a number of ways in which the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels fit the assumptions of the experimental work of these men as mature scientists, including Waddington.[7] In particular, Swann and Aprahamian identify Marxism’s historical perspective and its concern with transformation over time, as well as its “vision of the totality of the phenomena in nature that allowed both for its unity and its limitless diversity…that was not at the same time mechanically reductionist” as its likely appeal to these “adventurous young talents…that refused to accept disciplinary limitations and boundaries.”[8]

J.B.S. Haldane

For example, J.B.S. Haldane—who was not a member of the Theoretical Biology Club, but was well acquainted with all who were—was a prominent figure in the emerging mathematical theories of population genetics, and was also a card-carrying Marxist.

At the time, the mathematical formalisms of population genetics treated genes as entirely independent units, with the assumption that most traits were rigidly determined by genetic inheritance. This emphasis on genes was also coupled with the belief that genetic change only happened rarely, via random mutations, and that for changes in genes to distribute through a population required geological time scales (from the background assumptions of uniformitarianism and gradualism carried over from geology, as described elsewhere). This strict emphasis on genes as atomistic sources of control of traits and as insulated from their environments seems to share little in common with either an organicist approach to biology or a collectivist ideology like Marxism, thus precluding a connection between Haldane’s politics and his scientific work in population genetics.

However, in this context it is especially interesting that one of the main emphases of Haldane’s mathematical work was to show that selection coefficients could be larger than other population geneticists generally assumed, which allowed for a much more rapid evolution than was imagined possible by population geneticists before Haldane.[9]  In particular, Haldane’s work attributed much more of a link to the environment than was allowed by most other population geneticists. For example, in his paper on the famous case of the moths of Manchester,[10] Haldane demonstrated mathematically how the evolution from disproportionate numbers of speckled moths to disproportionate numbers of black moths within 50 years was plausible given the changes in environmental conditions around the industrializing city of Manchester, which was a practical impossibility given the then-accepted rates of genetic variation.[11] This link between environmental change and a commensurately rapid change in the biological constitution of organisms was in a way a confirmation of sorts of the Marxian assertion of the connection between humans and their environments, particularly in the context of industrialization, as described by Friedrich Engels, even though it was also well within the mainstream science of the time.

The science and ideology of Waddington

While it would be imprecise to label Waddington a Marxist per se (e.g., given that he once asserted that the organicist philosophy of Whitehead had actually superseded Marx’s dialectical materialism “with a fuller view of nature”[12]), it is clear that many of his closest associates were unabashed Marxists, and that Waddington had ideological inclinations which leaned in that direction as well.[13] Given the connections between social reform movements and open biologies described elsewhere, and given Waddington’s emphasis on the interactions of genes with their environments, it is perhaps not surprising that Waddington also advocated for socialist politics.

That said, these connections between ideological inclinations towards socialism and organicism in science during this era were not unique to Waddington and his close group of friends. Val Dusek, in his own account of the emergence of the anti-mechanistic, anti-reductionist biology and physics around this time, identifies many of the prominent scientists who embraced this more holistic view and who also proclaimed themselves as Marxists, and discusses the ways in which their ideological inclinations were manifest in their scientific work.[14]

Notably, the significance of these connections between politics and science were not lost on the scientists themselves. In his later life Waddington himself remarked on what he called the practical consequences of metaphysical beliefs on scientists’ work, observing from his own experience that “a scientist’s metaphysical beliefs are not mere epiphenomena, but have a definite and ascertainable influence on the work he produces.”[15]

This open acknowledgement of the connection between ideological beliefs and scientific work makes many scientists today uncomfortable, as if it should discredit the work of overt socialists and Marxists like Waddington, Haldane, and Bernal because of the level of the influence of their political beliefs on their work. However, given the caliber of these scientists and of their scientific work—some of which now constitutes the bedrock of contemporary genetics—this assumption that the influence of ideology automatically invalidates scientific work does not hold water.

Likewise, to assume that extra-scientific beliefs like political ideology only influenced the work of these few socialist scientists working in 1930s and 1940s who openly acknowledged this connection, while the work of other non-socialist scientists who did not acknowledge such a connection is somehow exempt from such influences is not supported by the political and scientific history of the science of genetics. As discussed in previous chapters, political ideology has been a pervasive influence on the development of the science of biology throughout its history, including on many of those innovations which are now accepted as its core orthodoxy. As this history shows again and again, claims about the ideological neutrality of scientific programs are usually at best unintentionally myopic, or at worst hubristic—and are themselves likely the manifestations of a particular ideology which is taken as self-evidently true. Again, this influence of ideology does not necessarily render such scientific claims unscientific—otherwise there would have been no development of science over the course of this history—but it does mean that ideologies must also be a consideration in the evaluation of scientific claims.

As such, in the final section of this book on the public policy implications of epigenetics, these connections between ideologies and science and policies will be seen to still be live concerns in regards to contemporary epigenetics—although now in our contemporary political contexts and not necessarily as a contest of socialism contra capitalism and democracy, as in the geopolitical context of World War II and the Cold War, which is the subject of the next chapter.

[1] Werskey, G., 1978. The Visible College: The Collective Biography of British Scientific Socialists of 1930s. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

[2] Gilbert, S. F., & Sarkar, S. (2000). Embracing complexity: organicism for the 21st century. Developmental dynamics219(1), 1-9.

Bedau, M.A. and Cleland, C.E., 2010. The nature of life: classical and contemporary perspectives from philosophy and science. Cambridge University Press, p. 95.

[3] Peterson, E. (2010). Finding mind, form, organism, and person in a reductionist age: The challenge of Gregory Bateson and CH Waddington to biological and anthropological orthodoxy, 1924–1980 (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from CurateND. (, pp. 39-41.

[4] Haldane the elder is also famous for his penchant for conducting his respiratory experiments upon himself, and for inventing the first gas mask from his firsthand observations of poison gas attacks during World War I.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bowler, P.J., 2010. Reconciling science and religion: The debate in early-twentieth-century Britain. University of Chicago Press, p. 169.

[7] Swann, B., & Aprahamian, F. (Eds.). (1999). JD Bernal: a life in science and politics. Verso, pp. xvi-xviii.

[8] Ibid., p. xviii.

[9] Crow, J. F. (1987). Population genetics history: a personal view. Annual review of genetics21(1), pp. 5-7.

[10] Haldane JBS. A mathematical theory of natural and artificial selection. Trans Cambridge Philos Soc. 1924;23:19–41.

[11] Larson, E. J. (2004). Evolution: the remarkable history of a scientific theory (Vol. 17). Random House Digital, Inc., pp. 218-224.

[12] Gilbert, S. F. (1991). Induction and the origins of developmental genetics. In A conceptual history of modern embryology (pp. 181-206). Springer US.

[13] Bowler, P. J. (2010). Reconciling science and religion: The debate in early-twentieth-century Britain. University of- Chicago Press, pp. 174-175

Waddington, C. H. (1942). Science and Ethics: An Essay. George Allen And Unwin Ltd.; London.

[14] Dusek, V. (1999). The holistic inspirations of physics: The underground history of electromagnetic theory. Rutgers University Press.

[15] Waddington, C.H. 2009. The Practical Consequences of Metaphysical Beliefs on a Biologist’s Work: an Autobiographical Note. In C.H. Waddington ed. Sketching Theoretical Biology: Toward a Theoretical Biology (Vol. 2). Transaction Publishers.

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