An open-notebook history of the Ecological Genetics Group

Erick Peirson | March 17, 2016, 1:36 p.m.

This post is about...

Anthony D. Bradshaw Ecological Genetics Group

The Genecology Project began in 2012 as an outgrowth of my dissertation research on plant ecologist Anthony David Bradshaw (1926–2008). Although the original focus of my research was not ecological genetics, by the time I left Bradshaw's archive in the fall of 2012 it had become clear to me that Bradshaw occupied a potentially decisive moment in the history of that field. As I later argued in my dissertation, Bradshaw's research was a fulcrum for the emergence of ecological genetics in Britain. Bradshaw was part of a small community of agriculturally-oriented plant ecologists operating at plant breeding stations and technical schools in Wales and Scotland that had incubated a unique research tradition that they called "genecology." Contrary to what we read in canonical histories of biology, ecological genetics was not the brainchild of Oxfordian zoologists, but rather a continuation (with modification) of a long tradition of agro-ecological plant genecology. It was genecological research that demonstrated just how powerful natural selection could be on small spatial scales, and just how quickly populations of plants could evolve as a result. The Genecology Project takes off from Bradshaw's story to tell the broader story of plant genecology and ecological genetics in Britain.

One of the challenges of planning and articulating an historical research project is finding something to follow around; a narrative through-thread that can provide a coherent point of reference and a comparator for historical arguments. In my dissertation, that through-thread was Bradshaw and his intellectual trajectory: from his training at Cambridge and Aberystwyth, through the early development of his research program at Bangor and Liverpool. Following a field through time, however, is a much less straightforward task. What can appear from afar to be a coherent and well-defined system of people and research questions can quickly become murky and mercurial upon closer inspection. At the edges, the research aims and participants of a scientific field are constantly intermingling with those of other fields. Thus historians usually opt for easier targets: people, institutions, and sometimes scientific journals. Following these objects through time and space is indeed valuable, and a large part of the Genecology Project has been documenting the people, places, and productions of genecology and ecological genetics. But these paths are only tangential to the broader arc of history that we are attempting to follow: the growth and development of a scientific field. Some of those paths (Bradshaw's, for instance) track more closely to that arc than others.

Fortuitously, when it comes to the story of ecological genetics we have an even more substantial thread to follow: a community of scientists called the Ecological Genetics Group (the EGG). The EGG is the longest-running professional meeting for ecological geneticists in Britain, and will convene for the 60th time in Aberystwyth, this spring. The connection between ecological genetics and the EGG goes far deeper than its name. It was Bradshaw and his colleagues in Wales and Scotland—the genecologists—whose informal meetings at Aberystwyth, Bangor, and Edinburgh in the mid-1950s gave rise to the EGG. It was through the students, colleagues, and acquaintances of that small nucleus of genecologists that the EGG expanded in subsequent decades. And, as the announcement for the 60th meeting makes clear, the EGG continues to consider Aberystwyth its "home". Thanks to the diligent work of EGG secretary John Warren, the programs and attendance lists for almost every meeting has been deposited at the National Library of Wales. As through-threads go, this collections of names, institutions, and frequently titles and/or abstracts of presentations and discussion topics, provides a remarkable trail to follow from the middle of the 1950s up through 2016.

The Project

Over the next several months, I will be tracing the EGG from its earliest meetings in the 1950s up through its 60th meeting in 2016. Unlike typical historical research projects, I won't be shutting myself up in a library for five years before emerging with an embossed door-stop: this project will take place out in the open—"in the wild"–on this website. I will begin with several posts from the final chapter of my dissertation, "Hatching the EGG," adapted for online bite-sized consumption. I will then begin to reconstruct the investigative pathways of EGG participants, the individual threads of the EGG's development. As I attempt to understand the research questions and problems that characterized ecological genetics over this sixty-year period, I will also pay close attention to the institutional and geographic contexts in which that research took place, and the organisms that ecological geneticists studied. Rather than ruminate on this work in hope of producing a fully-formed synthesis, I will be posting my notes and reflections here as the project unfolds. Meanwhile, I'll be making available a variety of materials from my dissertation research, including recordings and transcripts of oral history interviews, photographs, and other "digital surrogates" that shed light on the history of ecological genetics.

In addition, I'll be making available a very rich dataset produced by researchers in the Digital Innovation Group at Arizona State University that documents collaborative ties among genecologists in Britain around the middle of the 20th century. This dataset is interesting in terms of both its content and the methods used to create it. First and foremost, it provides time-variant social network data that can be used to ask quantitative questions about the evolution of the field. Rather than source these network data from bibliographic metadata (essentially, using co-authorship to model social networks), as is common in science-studies, this dataset was generated by annotating the acknowledgment sections of research articles using the Vogon text annotation platform. More on this soon!

Open-notebook research

This project is an example of open notebook research, a practice championed by chemist Jean-Claude Bradley. In future posts I'll elaborate on why I chose this approach, and what kinds of outcomes I hope to achieve beyond creating new knowledge about the history of ecological genetics. For now, I'll share Bradley's own description of "Open Notebook Science":

By this I mean that there is a URL to a laboratory notebook (like this) that is freely available and indexed on common search engines. It does not necessarily have to look like a paper notebook but it is essential that all of the information available to the researchers to make their conclusions is equally available to the rest of the world. Basically, no insider information.

More soon on what that can mean for the history of science.

Source code

The source code for this site can be found on GitHub. Code used for data processing or computational analysis will be made freely available on GitHub or similar platforms.


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