Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Did science fiction invent "genetic engineering"?

Jeff Prucher, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary's science fiction project (and author of Brave New Words) posted a list of "nine words you might think came from science but which are really from science fiction" on the Oxford University Press blog (hat tip SF Signal). Among them:
2. Genetic engineering. The other science that received its name from a science fiction story, in this case Jack Williamson’s novel Dragon's Island which was coincidentally published in the same year as “Liar!” The occupation of genetic engineer took a few more years to be named, this time by Poul Anderson.
I immediately thought "ooh interesting blog fodder", and did a bit more research.

It turns out that Williamson discussed Dragon's Island in a 2002 interview with Science Fiction Weekly:
I used to claim I'd been first to use the term genetic engineering, in my novel Dragon's Island, published in 1951, but now I understand that some scientist beat me by a couple of years.
Oops. So what's the real story?

One of the things that makes researching the use of scientific jargon difficult is that it's largely confined to technical publications, most of which aren't searchable beyond the title and abstract of the articles. If you are looking for a term that first came into use before the mid-1980s or so, it can be well nigh impossible.

However, the journal Science has made its archives searchable, way back to the first issues in the late 1800s (a serious treasure trove if you are interested in the history of American science). A quick search for the term "genetic engineering" before 1951 and I turned up the following article:
Stern C. "Selection and Eugenics" Science 26 August 1949 110: 201-208 [DOI: 10.1126/science.110.2852.201]

Human genetics concerns our own as well as future generations. Genetic counseling is largely devoted to individual problems, but the social implications of specific advice usually have not been disregarded. Eugenic thinking has always emphasized the well-being of mankind, even though much eugenic counseling was based on inadequate knowledge and has been harmful. In the future more knowledge will be gathered and will aid wise planning. Then genetic and eugenic counseling will become the foundation of human genetic engineering.

The article uses the term "genetic engineering" in the breeding sense, rather than the molecular biological sense - not surprising, since this was several years before Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA. At the time there was no scientific method available for modifying an individual's - or population's - genes other than zapping with X-rays or other mutagens or traditional selection and breeding methods.

Similar searches of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (back to 1915) and Nature (back to 1950) came up empty. So, while Williamson certainly isn't the first to use the phrase, it doesn't appear to have been in common usage.

And the idea of manipulating genetic material weren't new to Williamson either. The Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature traced the the idea in pulp fiction to Clement F├ęzandie's first "Doctor Hackensaw" story (1921) and Norman L. Knight's "Crisis in Utopia" (1940), which used the term "tectogenesis."1

Genetics and eugenics were hot topics in th 1930s and 1940s. The Nobel Prize awarded Hermann J Muller in 1946 likely raised both awareness of genetics and that X-rays and radiation could introduce heritable mutations among the general public. As Muller said in his Nobel Prize lecture:
We see then that production of mutations by radiation is a method, capable of being turned in various directions, both for the analysis of the germ plasm itself, and of the organism which is in a sense an outgrowth of that germ plasm. It is to be hoped that it may also, in certain fields, prove of increasing practical use in plant and animal improvement, in the service of man. So far as direct practical application in man himself is concerned, however, we are as yet a long way from practicing any intentional selection over our own germ plasm, although like most species we are already encumbered by countless undesirable mutations, from which no individual is immune.
By the time Williamson wrote Dragon's Island, the neither idea of intentional genetic manipulation or the term "genetic engineering" were new. He did, however, make the science entertaining, which is what science fiction does best.

1. "Tectogenesis" was the term used by Norman Knight and James Blish to mean the "direct, surgical, manipulation of chromosomes."

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  1. good info and excellent new bloglook ! thanks !

  2. Anonymous3:45 AM

    Strange request. I once read a fantastic short story where a child was genetically programed to drink a certain brand of soft drink. A somewhat dark satire on consumerism. I have managed to forget the author's name as well as the title of the collection. If anyone knows the author or title please post it.

  3. I believe construction of such projects requires knowledge of engineering and management principles and business procedures, economics, and human behavior.


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