Bateson, William

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William Bateson (1861-1926) was a British biologist who named the science of genetics. Bateson's book, Mendel's Principles of Heredity, excerpted below, reiterated and developed biologist Gregor Mendel's (1822-1884) findings about variation in plant life, provoking new scientific and social debate about the laws of heredity. Eugenicists quickly and controversially absorbed Bateson's theories, although Bateson remained ambivalent about their ideas.

"[W]hereas our experience of what constitutes the extremes of unfitness is fairly reliable and definite, we have little to guide us in estimating the qualities for which society has or may have a use, or the numerical proportions in which they may be required. But specially important are the indications that in the extreme cases, unfitness is comparatively definite in its genetic causation, and can, not unfrequently, be recognized as due to the presence of a simple genetic factor. There is as yet nothing in the descent of the higher mental qualities to suggest that they follow any single system of transmission. It is likely that both they, and the more marked developments, of physical powers result rather from the coincidence of numerous factors than from the possession of any one genetic element. Some serious physical and mental defects, almost certainly also some morbid diatheses, and some of the forms of vice and criminality could be eradicated if society so determined. That however is the utmost length to which the authority of physiological science can in the present state of knowledge be claimed for interference. More extensive schemes are already being advocated by writers who are neither utopians nor visionaries. Their proposals are directed in the belief that society is more likely to accept a positive plan for the encouragement of the fit than negative interference for the restraint of the unfit. Genetic science, as I have said, gives no clear sanction to these proposals. It may also be doubted whether the guiding estimate of popular sentiment is well-founded. Society has never shown itself averse to adopt measures of the most stringent and even brutal kind for the control of those whom it regards as its enemies. Genetic knowledge must certainly lead to new conceptions of justice, and it is by no means impossible that in the light of such knowledge public opinion will welcome measures likely to do more for the extinction of the criminal and degenerate than has been accomplished by ages of penal enactment."

Bateson, William. Mendel's Principles of Heredity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1930, p. 305.