William Bateson

William Bateson (1861-1926), an English biologist, was mainly concerned with evolutionary questions. His dissatisfaction with traditional Darwinian arguments about life's history led him to a career study of heredity and variation.

Under Darwin's influence, biologists of the last four decades of the 19th century turned their attention largely toward studies of the history of life. Using description and comparison of the structure and developmental characteristics of organisms as their primary tools they sought to delineate the basic life forms. Their second task was to determine variations from these forms and relationships amoung variations. Above all, they desired to reconstruct the lineage of all species. William Bateson directed his career toward a solution of the problems Charles Darwin could not answer.

Bateson was born on August 8, 1861. His father was a classics scholar and master of St. John's College, Cambridge. As a boy he showed mild interest in nature and demonstrated fair knowledge in natural history. His marks in science were encouraging, but few recognized his latent skill in this field. His father did not favor the pursuit of natural science. In this setting Bateson was described as "a vague and aimless boy."

When Bateson entered St. John's College in 1879 he experienced his first academic success and gained direction in science. In 1882 he won an honors examination, the Natural Science Tripos, and later gained a college scholarship. These successes led him to focus on biology. Adam Sedgwick and W. F. R. Weldon, renowned Cambridge scientists, contributed significantly to Bateson's knowledge and early understanding of biology.


The Iconoclast—Early Career

Bateson's first professional scientific work was done in the spirit of traditional biology. Study for the Natural Science Tripos introduced him to the acorn worm Balanoglossus. Little was known about the life history of Balanoglossus, and Bateson wished to explore the possibility of its relation to the vertebrates. After two summers of study (1883 and 1884) under W. K. Brooks in America, Bateson published papers arguing for the position of Balanoglossusas a primitive chordate. Through this work he gained initial recognition as a biologist, and it led to his election as a Fellow of St. John's College (1885).

A seed of dissent was also found in Bateson's earliest professional work. While the Balanoglossus studies followed traditional biology in method and goal, Bateson weighted the evidence differently than did his forerunners and suggested a reorganization of the tree of phylogeny. Brooks had encouraged Bateson to view critically the conclusions about phylogeny reached through comparative studies in anatomy and embryology. Bateson came to regard these conclusions as speculative, not capable of being tested. Instead he gained an appreciation of experimental studies in heredity and variation.

In subsequent years Bateson became an outspoken critic of traditional biology. While he demanded high scientific standards for his own work and other's, his ideas were not popular, and he repeatedly failed to gain teaching appointments. His research during the early years of his career was meagerly funded through lectures and temporary fellowships, such as the Balfour Studentship, which he received in 1887.

Bateson's own program of research included rigorous experimentation and the extensive collection of facts. Through a survey of information acquired in this manner and the application of inductive reasoning, one could, Bateson believed, reach firm scientific conclusions. From 1886 to 1894 his work centered on the collection of information on variation in animals. His observation of discontinuity between species led him to believe that evolution does not take place through the selection of individuals possessing tiny, but advantageous, variations (Darwin's view). Instead, he believed that evolution, particularly the origin of a new species, takes place by great leaps in variation (hence the term discontinuous). This view was expressed in Materials for the Study of Variation (1894), a book that many regard as Bateson's best.

After ruling out the selective power of the environment as the driving factor in evolution, Bateson proposed that evolution can be understood through a study of inheritance which would, he expected, reveal the origin of variation— the phenomenon underlying evolutionary change. During the following years Bateson began an ambitious program of breeding experiments. He wished to know exactly the nature of the transmission of characteristics from parent to offspring. This understood, he could investigate errors in transmission—in short, he could study variation.


Bateson and the Discovery of Mendel

Through his work on heredity and variation, Bateson became peculiarly well suited to recognize the significance of Gregor Mendel's work. First published in 1866 and then forgotten, this work on the inheritance of characters in garden peas was discovered by Hugo De Vries in 1900. Bateson soon also read the republished paper and immediately advanced the view to students and colleagues. To his dismay, however, his former teacher and a bastion of scientific opinion in England, W. F. R. Weldon, reviewed Mendel's work and denied it any significance. Fearing that Mendel's view would be lost for a second time, Bateson formulated a vigorous defense that initiated a bitter controversy but ensured that Mendel would not easily be forgotten.

For Bateson, Mendel's view provided an answer to some vexing biological questions. First, it accorded well with a view supporting discontinuity of variation and, Bateson believed, solved the controversy about whether variation was continuous or discontinuous. Second, it proposed a hereditary unity underlying particular characters— a unity that is retained regardless of combination with other characters and maintained as a hereditary factor even if not manifested in visible character. Thus it answered the question of how a variation could remain distinct when the variable organism bred back into a large population of the normal type. Mendel's view also provided an experimental and quantitative method by which discrete characters could be followed through generations—a rigor that appealed to Bateson. It was, in fact, a principle that organized and explained all Bateson's preconceptions about the nature of organisms and evolution.

Mendelism also provided Bateson with hope for a union between his scientific conceptions and the mainstream of biological opinion. During the ten years following his discovery of Mendel, Bateson became the foremost proselytizer for the Mendelian view. In this task he met considerable success. Genetics, a term that Bateson himself applied to the study of heredity and variation, became a prodigious and respectable pursuit. Bateson subsequently gained serious and highly qualified students, among whom were R. C. Punnett, E. R. Saunders, and L. Doncaster. These students aided him in his most commonly remembered scientific achievements—the demonstration of Mendelian phenomena in animals, a determination of the distribution of hereditary factors that had initially been thought to be anomolous to the Mendelian view, and the discovery of the tendency for factors to be inherited in groups (the phenomenon later called linkage).

These achievements led to numerous honors and improvements in Bateson's academic position. In 1907 he was invited to give a series of lectures at Yale—the Silliman Lectures, published in 1913 as Problems in Genetics. In 1910 Bateson became director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution at Merton. There he continued his research and writing, but he slowly slipped from his leading role in biology.


The Conservative Period

Genetics acquired a distinctly materialistic bent in the second decade of the 20th century. Researchers at Columbia University under T. H. Morgan moved the field with their chromosome theory of inheritance. They proposed that the factors of inheritance—genes—were material units arranged serially on the chromosomes. Recognizing that they lacked the sophistication to investigate the manner by which these proposed material factors were translated into visible characters, these researchers limited their investigation to the transmission of characters from one generation to the next. Studies of the frequencies at which factors were inherited together led to a positioning of factors on chromosomes. In essence, a genetic map was created.

Results from Columbia were impressive and convinced most biologists of the accuracy of the chromosome theory. Bateson was, however, philosophically oriented against a materialistic position. He believed that substance alone possessed no capacity to reproduce and manifest itself in a visible character. On the contrary, forces—waves, for example—by causing similar arrangements of substance could be the hereditary factors. This, applied to development, could explain the repetition of body parts or, applied to inheritance, could explain why offspring were similar to parents. Even variation was regarded by Bateson not as a change in substance, but as a change in arrangement brought on by a change in force or motion during development. Thus, for Bateson, inheritance and development were intimately bound. This union was ignored by Morgan and his colleagues. While they made great strides in characterizing inheritance, their refusal to deal with development indicated, Bateson believed, the weakness of their theory.

Few biologists shared Bateson's suspicion of materialism. That evidence for the chromosome theory was circumstantial did not bother them as it bothered Bateson. While Bateson called for a demonstration that material units on chromosomes gave rise to inheritable characters, they were satisfied that linkage groups correlated well with chromosome number—this correlation was the strongest evidence the Columbia group could initially produce for the chromosome theory. It was a popular theory, however, and it became more popular as the evidence mounted in its favor. Oriented against this trend, Bateson once again found himself critic of prevailing biological thought.

Despite failing health, Bateson continued his research at the John Innes Horticultural Institution until his death in 1926. In addition, he continued his lifelong avocation, the collection of art. His election as a trustee of the British Museum was related to the knowledge gained through this avocation. This final honor pleased him greatly and topped his impressive list, which included the Darwin Medal (1904), election as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1914), and the Royal Medal (1920).


Further Reading on William Bateson

The most comprehensive biography of Bateson is the memoir by his wife, Beatrice Bateson. It includes samples of his letters and is found in the book William Bateson, F. R. S. Naturalist (1928, 1985), which also contains numerous papers and addresses by Bateson. Other biographical sources are William Coleman's article in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography and "William Bateson" by his student R. C. Punnett (Edinburgh Review, 1926). Lindley Darden gives a perceptive analysis of Bateson's adoption of the Mendelian view in "William Bateson and the Promise of Mendelism, " Journal of the History of Biology (1977), and A. G. Cock writes about Bateson's breeding experiments, discusses Bateson's conflicts with the conservative factions of English biology, and characterizes Bateson's approach to scientific investigation in "William Bateson, Mendelism and Biometry, " Journal of the History of Biology (1973). "Bateson and Chromosomes: Conservative Thought in Science, " Centaurus (1970) is a lengthy article by William Coleman on the factors which contributed to Bateson's rejection of chromosome theory. For a general study of biology during this period, see Garland Allen, Life Science in the Twentieth Century (1975).