Skip to main content

Evolution Made to Order

Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth-Century America

Evolution Made to Order

Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth-Century America

Plant breeders have long sought technologies to extend human control over nature. Early in the twentieth century, this led some to experiment with startlingly strange tools like x-ray machines, chromosome-altering chemicals, and radioactive elements. Contemporary reports celebrated these mutation-inducing methods as ways of generating variation in plants on demand. Speeding up evolution, they imagined, would allow breeders to genetically engineer crops and flowers to order. Creating a new food crop or garden flower would soon be as straightforward as innovating any other modern industrial product. 

In Evolution Made to Order, Helen Anne Curry traces the history of America’s pursuit of tools that could intervene in evolution. An immersive journey through the scientific and social worlds of midcentury genetics and plant breeding and a compelling exploration of American cultures of innovation, Evolution Made to Order provides vital historical context for current worldwide ethical and policy debates over genetic engineering.

320 pages | 29 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

History: American History, Environmental History, History of Technology

History of Science


"A fascinating foray into a mutated cornucopia of agricultural and horticultural products and the tools that made them. Such varied and important insights into the history of biological innovation and its many aspirations seem as relevant as ever in our ongoing search for new tools to reshape living things to our goals, needs, and desires—and to envision life as it could be."


"In this fascinating, well-researched history of genetic innovation, Curry explores the hype, intensive investigation, and, ultimately, the disappointment accompanying the application of new technologies offering the promise of human control over plant evolution to breed superior agricultural and horticultural crops in the early to mid-20th century. The utilization of these tools for plant breeding is placed in the broader context of innovations in the electromechanical, chemical, and nuclear industries and the desire to control living organisms in a manner similar to any other industrial product. Certain historical events, such as America’s entry into World War II and the subsequent desire for national self-sufficiency that developed, helped fuel the hope that these technologies could deliver the necessary genetic advances, despite the available evidence to the contrary. Fascinating and entertaining throughout, this historical account of genetic technological innovation helps provide context for discussion over current, and by every measure much more successful, genetic engineering technologies utilized for plant improvement and the societal, ethical, and ecological questions surrounding them. Highly recommended."


"Curry’s book is a clearly written and original history charting the activities of Americans who developed tools designed to manipulate genes and chromosomes in the early to mid-twentieth century. She focuses on three technologies: use of X-rays, chemical manipulation, and gamma radiation. These stories illustrate how readily scientists and the American public exploited new technologies as they became available, always with the hope of speeding up and controlling evolution."

Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society

"In her book Evolution Made to Order, Curry elucidates three major innovations in American plant breeding techniques during the 20th century—the use of X-rays, colchicine, and radioisotopes to bring about mutations and speed up evolution. Along the way, she introduces us to important plant breeders and scientists, including Albert Blakeslee, David Burpee, Bernard Nebel, Mable Ruttle, Arnold Sparrow, Lewis Stadler, Ralph Singleton, and others who strove to feed the world."

Quarterly Review of Biology

"Curry’s clear and appealing writing, and her layered analysis, make this a wonderful and important book."

Annals of Science

"Curry’s history is well researched, well written, clear, and subtle.... She does us a service by taking 'failures' seriously. The bias toward studying successes blinds us to the alternative paths that seemed just as realistic, in their time and place, as the eventual successes. We need more studies of scientific and technological dead ends if we are to gain a full understanding of the ways scientists and engineers tried to change the world at any given time."

Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

"Curry identifies several cross-cutting themes that strengthen her argument for a shared technological and industrial vision. . . . Throughout the book Curry raises key questions and builds important arguments, to which she returns in a suggestive Epilogue, about the overarching industrial values (to which I would add corporate values) that dominated the context of doing science in the twentieth century. She demonstrates the very real overlap of scientific, commercial, and industrial practices, and what might be called an obsession with prediction and control extending from the management of industrial processes to the management of life."

Journal of the History of Biology

"Providing compelling perspectives on consumerism, marketing, and the everyday roles of technology and science in the United States in the twentieth century, [Curry's] study tracks efforts to produce mutations in plants. . . .  As a study of the marketing of scientific promise, this book is filled with rich details and wonderful illustrations of the exuberance."

Journal of American History

"Informative, engaging, and entertaining. This book will already be familiar to historians of technology and science with an interest in agriculture—who will be repaid by a return to the volume and its evergreen themes. Generalists and specialists in other areas should take note of this fine model of scholarship with broad relevance. It also deserves the attention of readers with wider interests in technology, amateur and professional science, and science and technology policy. This is exactly the kind of well-reasoned and clearly written analysis that one hopes policymakers or anyone seeking to employ technology should be reading in producing solutions to the problems of food in the future. . . . This volume remains relevant and timely at least in part because of its richness—which this review can hardly capture—of analysis and exposition in thinking about plants and their co-evolved humans."

Technology and Culture

“Curry recovers a neglected history of biotechnology with verve and vivid detail. Decades before recombinant DNA, eager breeders and horticulturalists exploited mutant-generating techniques from chemistry and nuclear energy to improve crops and ornamental plants. As she shows, GMOs are only the latest chapter of ‘evolution to order’ in agriculture.”

Angela N. H. Creager, Princeton University

“This well-written book is in part a contribution to the history of plant breeding. But more than that, it is a study of ‘technological utopianism’: the fervent belief that new methods of inducing mutation could transform breeding and thus boost the agricultural economy. Of particular interest is Curry’s demonstration that although the new technology was a failure from the breeders’ point of view, it nonetheless retained widespread support from a range of extrascientific organizations—seed companies, industrial firms, government agencies—who perceived it as a solution to their own quite different problems.”

Jonathan Harwood, Kings College London

“Early and mid-twentieth-century geneticists and plant breeders dreamed of finding ways to speed up evolution. Evolution Made to Order uses a diverse set of sources, ranging from archives and newspapers to seed catalogs, to explore how and why American researchers hoped to use radiation to produce new commercial plant varieties. Curry’s innovative approach to the history of biotechnology deserves a wide audience among historians of science, technology, and medicine.”

Audra Wolfe, author of Competing with the Soviets

“Curry offers a fascinating historical journey through the American scientific and social worlds of induced-mutation work. Through extensive research, she convincingly establishes that biologists’ obsession with plant mutation breeding did not begin with molecular biology and recombinant DNA but, rather, with the tools of chemical mutagenesis and radiobiology. Her lively account resurrects unknown actors, important institutional contexts, and forgotten cultural fads, and her thoughtful consideration of the successes and failures of their collective scientific endeavors provides some much-needed historical context for current ethical and policy debates over genetic engineering. Evolution Made to Order is a narrative account that is both accessible and scholarly. It makes an important contribution to the historiographies of biology and technology, and treats with appropriate parity the roles of its scientific and amateur historical actors. It is, in a word, brilliant.”

Karen Rader, Virginia Commonwealth University

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Part 1   Evolution by X-ray: The Industrialization of Biological Innovation
1          Mutation Theories
2          An Unsolved Problem
3          Speeding Up Evolution
4          X-rays in the Lab and Field
5          Industrial Evolution
Part 2   Tinkering with Chromosomes: Colchicine in the Lab and Garden
6          Artificial Tetraploidy
7          Evolution to Order
8          Better Evolution through Chemistry
9          Tinkering Technologists
10        The Flower Manufacturers
Part 3   Atoms for Agriculture: Evolution in a Large Technological System
11        Radiation Revisited
12        Mutation Politics
13        An Atomic-Age Experiment Station
14        Atomic Gardens
15        The Peaceful Atom in Global Agriculture


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press