The Sustainable Seed Innovations Project: Prong 2 – Re-Designing Education for Agricultural Students and their Teachers (Part I)

In the next (four-part) post in the ongoing blog post series on The Sustainable Seed Innovations Project), Prof. Gregory Radick provides an overview of the educationally focused “second prong” of the position paper’s three-prong approach. He discusses the need to redesign elements of agricultural training to ensure a better fit with the goal of greater sustainability, looking in particular at how his historical research into the organization of knowledge in two areas — Mendelian genetics and intellectual property — has opened up new options.

The Sustainable Seed Innovations Project : Prong 2 – Re-Designing Education for Agricultural Students and their Teachers (Part I)

Prof. Gregory Radick

We now turn to consider the following question: What sort of education can best support a transition from the current scenario where farmers are mainly technology takers to one where they are the makers of innovations, above all in connection with seeds and sustainability?

At this preliminary stage, raising awareness of the need for a new kind of training should take priority over settling on the exact content of this training.  Nevertheless, even now it is possible, in an indicative way, to sketch out reforms in a couple of areas where improvements are not only needed but, thanks to recent research from within the project team, straightforwardly made.

In what follows we shall, for ease, write about farmers themselves as the recipients of the envisaged training.  Given illiteracy rates among many Indian small farmers, however, it is more realistic, for the foreseeable future, to suppose that the training is instead for agricultural education service officers and agricultural university students, who can then go on to disseminate appropriately tailored versions of it to the farmers themselves.

i) From a “genes for traits” to a “genes, environments and variability” understanding of heredity

 After presenting the now-standard way of doing things pedagogically, we will describe a recent alternative, then consider how the values acquired in the introductory genetics classroom might translate into farming practice.

“Genes for traits” genetics teaching: Consider a widely used university-level genetics textbook, iGenetics: A Mendelian Approach, by Peter Russell.  Early on, students are introduced to Gregor Mendel, “founder of the science of genetics,” and his famous experiments hybridizing pea varieties. Such a starting point is a global commonplace, at every level where genetics is taught, and has been, to varying degrees, for over a century.[1] Students go on to learn about Mendel’s discoveries of dominance and recessiveness, segregation, etc: discoveries made thanks to his purifying his varietal stocks before crossing them, thus revealing regularities that escaped previous investigators.  When, for example, purple-flowering and white-flowering stocks were crossed, all the hybrids had purple flowers, showing purpleness to be dominant over whiteness. And when those hybrids self-fertilized, their offspring showed not just purple but also white flowers, in the ratio 3 to 1.  Then the students get to see for themselves how wonderfully well explained this pattern is on Mendel’s simple hypothesis that there are just two kinds of underlying factor, one for purpleness and one for whiteness.[2]

Russell’s textbook itself comes in two varieties. There is iGenetics: A Molecular Approach as well as iGenetics: A Mendelian Approach.[3]  But both books have the same chapters, just in a different order.  In the Molecular Approach book, as soon as whole organisms come up, we are back with Mendel and his pea hybrids.  That is what an intellectual monoculture looks like.

What is the problem? Judged on its own terms, there is no problem at all with this pedagogy. On the contrary, it works amazingly well. If you want to experience how good science teaching can be when it is at its best, take a well-taught introductory genetics course. A century of honing has made this pedagogy exceptionally effective at inducting good students – the ones who want to do well, who really work at the questions at the back of each chapter in order to master the techniques of reasoning – into the science of heredity under Mendelism, and to do it so comprehensively that they lose more or less any appetite or ability they might have had to think critically about what they are being taught.

But there are worries. A recent survey of college and university teachers of introductory genetics across the United States revealed that they were uniformly concerned that, in the actual delivery of their courses, gene-environment interactions come across to students as a low-emphasis, low-priority topic.  From the perspective of these teachers, it would not be at all surprising if, despite their good intentions and best efforts, what their students remember after the course is the long-outdated “genes for traits” notion emphasized at the start-with-Mendel beginning.[4] Part of what makes the standard beginning so permanently attractive is that it is so simple. To understand why a flower has the color it does, you need to pay attention only to the combination and recombination of flower-color genes, themselves attractively binary, for-purpleness or for-whiteness. Nothing else matters. Environments, from the genomic to the physiological to the physico-chemical, never get mentioned.  Nor is there any interesting variability in the outward characters or “phenotypes.” There is just purpleness and whiteness.

It appears, then, that a misleadingly deterministic picture of how genes work is being instilled through standard genetics pedagogy and its organization around Mendelian hybrids and concepts associated with them. That is problematic in itself, so far as we want students to emerge from teaching with something approximating our own best scientific understanding of how heredity works. It may also be problematic in its implications.  We shall refer to implications for agricultural practice below.  For now, and more briefly, consider the implications for decisions taken in the context of human health and illness. Increasingly people are acquiring information about their own genetic constitutions.[5] If teaching conditions them to want to ask only whether or not they have the “genes for” certain diseases, say, and not to want to ask in addition about how differences in genetic background may matter, or differences in wider environments, then that incuriosity may lead them to make poor choices, leading to worse outcomes. That is one way in which a persistently Mendelian organization for genetic knowledge can hold us back from reaping maximal human benefit from recent advances in what is increasingly known as “post-genomics.”[6] Another is the potential it creates for strengthening a psychological attitude of essentialism: for thinking that people, like peas, come in genetically defined types, some born with a greater capacity for worldly success than others, with well-known consequences for social inequality.[7]

Literature Cited

Donovan, Brian.  “Playing with Fire? The Impact of the Hidden Curriculum in School Genetics on Essentialist Conceptions of Race.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 51 (2014): 462– 496.

Kitcher, Philip.  The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities. Allen Lane (1996).

Kronfeldner, Maria E.  “Genetic Determinism and the Innate-Acquired Distinction in Medicine.”  Medicine Studies 1 (2009): 167‒81.

Jamieson, Annie and Radick, Gregory.  2013.  “Putting Mendel in His Place: How Curriculum Reform in Genetics and Counterfactual History of Science Can Work Together.”  In Kostas Kampourakis, ed., The Philosophy of Biology: A Companion for Educators.  Springer (2018), pp. 577‒95.

Mordor Intelligence. “Genetic Testing Market – Growth, Trends and Forecast (2019-2024).” (2018).

Russell, Peter J. Igenetics: A Mendelian Approach. Benjamin-Cummings Publishing Company (2006).

[1] Jamieson and Radick, (2013).

[2] On Mendel’s explanation, all the hybrids are purple because when purple-making factors from the purple-flowering plants meet white-making factors from the white-flowering plants, purpleness is dominant.  Only when white-making factors meet a white-making factors – as will happen, by the rules of probability, in a quarter of hybrids’ offspring, given the segregation of white-making and purple-making factors into separate gametes – will the resulting plant produce white flowers.

[3] Russell, (2006).

[4] We are grateful to Michelle K. Smith for sharing the results of this not-yet-published survey, conducted in connection with ongoing research by her, Brian Donovan and PI Radick.

[5] Mordor Intelligence, (2018).

[6] Kitcher, (1996), esp. ch. 11; Kronfeldner, (2009).

[7] Donovan, (2014).

Please click here to view the version this four-part post with full references.

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