From a lay perspective, revolutions in genetics appear to be a regular occurrence. Since the breakthrough discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, barely a month seems to pass without the headlines declaring a new, transformative application for the building blocks of life. But, as Professor Matthew Cobb, zoologist and bestselling writer on the history of science, will point out in his contribution to the Darwin College Lecture Series, progress seldom delivers overnight change.
“Revolutions are very easy to pinpoint in retrospect,” he explains. “When they’re actually happening it’s very difficult. And they tend to be a lot less rapid and revolutionary than we subsequently consider them to be. When was the French Revolution? You could say it was 14th July 1789, but nothing much happened on 14th July 1789 except a few hundred people stormed the Bastille and let out, I think six prisoners. Louis XVI wasn’t decapitated for another 18 months. Having lived in France for a long time, I know that that revolution isn’t over – all the contradictions that exploded in 1789 are still reverberating today.”
The intricacies of the French Revolution may seem an unlikely starting point for a discussion of genetics, but Cobb is an unusual scientist. After a PhD in Psychology and Genetics, focused on the mating behaviour of fruit flies, he spent 18 years in France researching the sense of smell in maggots. He joined the University of Manchester in 2002, where he is now a Professor of Zoology, and has written several popular books on the history of science. But visitors to his university webpage may spot, between the descriptions of insect behaviour and olfactory research, a somewhat surprising line:
“PS If you are looking for someone who studies the history of the French Resistance in WW2, you have indeed come to the right place. Send me an e-mail.”
His books on the history of science, The Egg and Sperm Race: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth and Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code have alternated with books of French wartime history; The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis and Eleven Days in August: The Liberation of Paris in 1944 with a fluidity which makes clear why the concepts of political and genetic revolution are so interwoven in his thought processes.
“Revolutions are generally much more complicated than we think, and scientific revolutions even more so, because science is this kind of cumulative process of increasingly accurate understanding of the natural world, and things look so obvious in retrospect only because you’ve been told them. So the history of science looks like it’s full of these sudden lurches, when suddenly everybody realises that the old way of thinking was wrong and the new way is right.”
One of these ‘obvious in retrospect’ discoveries was the subject of Cobb’s first book, which explored the slow progress between the 17th and 19th centuries to pinpoint the mechanics of human reproduction.
“The biggest revolution of all in genetics, which nobody ever believes, is that before the 17th to 19th century we really didn’t know where babies came from. We didn’t know how they were made. So there is no such thing as heredity…the idea of there being a force, something that is inherited, only appears in the 19th century. And up until then, even with the discovery of eggs and sperm, both of which were discovered in the 17th century, people still couldn’t make head or tail of it. They didn’t immediately understand that eggs and sperm were complementary structures.”
Cobb’s own lifelong research interest has been the sense of smell, to understand which he has extensively studied the olfactory systems of fruit fly maggots. In an interview with Jim Al-Khalili for BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific, broadcast in March 2020, he acknowledged that smell has frequently failed to harness the same attention as the other senses – a deficit which shifted abruptly when millions of Covid sufferers discovered how debilitating its loss can be.
“People who’ve got problems with their sense of smell, before Covid they’d go and see their doctor and the doctor would say well, there’s nothing much we can do about it, which is actually often true. And you’d just have to live with it. But at least now there’s a greater awareness that it is a huge problem. I mean you can’t smell people, you can’t smell things, you can’t smell yourself, you can’t smell food, food tastes different, often just boring, or if you’ve had Covid then you end up with these bizarre afflictions called phantosmia, so you’re smelling things that aren’t there, or parosmia, where you are smelling things in completely in completely different ways… If you imagine this is like a chord, normally you play a chord on a piano, it sounds lovely, but now these two black keys no longer function properly. You play it and it now sounds really kind of discordant and unpleasant. And that’s basically what’s happening. Some of your olfactory have been affected, particular classes of them, and so you can’t smell things in the same way, so things don’t taste properly. You can recover it, but it’s very hard.”
The lecture will examine familiar discoveries which reshaped human understanding of genetics, from the 19th century discovery of heritability to the dawn of genetic engineering. But what Cobb is keen to demonstrate, returning to his favoured point of reference, is that none of these effected immediate change.
“I think that’s the main thing, is that revolutions are very slow. In retrospect it looks like the guillotine falls and the head rolls into the tumbril, but that’s not the way it happens at the time.”
In addition to this, however, is a related message which he is equally keen to impart.
“People in the past weren’t stupid. That’s not the reason they didn’t understand something, that’s just never the reason. There’s something else going on, an obstacle – the evidence is there in one form or another but they don’t have the interpretative framework to make sense of it. Why didn’t they understand something? And why does it often take so long for what look like obvious findings to become accepted?”