Francis Bacon: The Father of Experimental Evolution?

Tl;dr: Experimental evolution is partially about controlling and directing change for human benefit. Early experimental evolutionists cite Francis Bacon as a predecessor as both 1) inspiration for scientific practice and 2) creating an institution to which such practice could be carried out. Much like Bacon’s own perspective, there is little to no separation between basic and applied research. However, Bacon’s actual influence on later developments is questionable. Thus, titling Bacon the “father of experimental evolution” is probably not correct, but it seems as though experimental evolution could be titled “Baconian.”

Experimental evolution – the study of evolution in a controlled environment over time – has long had a practical bent in its work.* Many of the figures in early experimental evolution (1890 – ~1920) had practical motives in their pursuits. Not only were some studying science in hopes of applying their results to the ‘real world,’ but others, like Wilhelm Johannsen or George Shull, were actively solving problems they faced in their agricultural work.


It is perhaps not so surprising then to find Francis Bacon (1567-1621) (problematically known as the “father of the scientific method”) propped up as a predecessor of this experimental movement. As my colleague Cosima Herter has written (as a historical supplement for the biology-based sci-fi show Orphan Black – you should watch it!), Bacon viewed science not only as a way to study the natural world, but also as, when done properly (i.e., not purely theoretically), a “useful art.”


In Sylva sylvarum (1627, 1670), Francis Bacon adopted a limited idea of evolution, or more properly speaking, “transmutation” – at least in plants. Documenting reports of basil morphing into wild thyme when “much exposed to the Sun,” or a cut beech putting forth a birch, Bacon rejected the traditional opinion that such change is impossible (111). According to him, this is not all that surprising, given the prevalence of metamorphosis. However, there was a general lack of “Instances” of such phenomena, so Bacon instead gave six “Directions of the most likely trials” in order to bring about such examples.

Among these rules are:

“You shall do well therefore to take Marsh Herbs, and plant them upon tops of Hills and Champaigns; and such Plants as require much moisture, upon Sandy and very dry grounds (112).

“Make Plants grow out of the Sun, or open Air; for that is a great mutation in Nature, and may induce a change in the Seed. As barrel up Earth, and sow some Seed in it. and put in the bottom of a Pond, or put it in some great hollow Tree; try also the sowing of Seeds in the bottoms of Caves; and Pots with Seeds sown, hanged up in Wells, some distance from the Water, and see what the event will be” (112-113).

The other four rules are somewhat stranger, involving mixing seeds and plant parts together in order to change and influence others. You can read them here in my transcribed .docx (Dropbox).

In another work, Bacon called for an institution to carry out such research. As Cosima writes (with some text removed),

The pursuit of technology in Bacon’s time was towards “the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” Bacon outlined his vision of the role of science and technology toward reforming society in his utopian fiction New Atlantis (1627). Here he described a complex institution of scientific and technological research. […] There the advancement of learning was completely within the province of the state, and the truths of nature were exploited in the development of such pursuits as: “the prolongation of life; […] versions of bodies into other bodies; making of new species; transplanting of one species into another…”

Thus, Francis Bacon saw the modification of plants (and perhaps animals) as a practical pursuit that would benefit society in some way.

Whether or not anyone picked up Bacon’s directions or ideas immediately following his calls is unclear (although I doubt it), but his ideas were revived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when “experimental evolution” arrived on the scene.

The first explicit call for “experimental evolution” was from Henry de Varigny in 1891.** While de Varigny was primarily concerned with demonstrating the reality of evolution to creationist hold-outs, as well as figuring out the mechanisms of evolution, he noted “practical and utilitarian results which may be expected and attained.” Citing New Atlantis, de Varigny recommended the construction of

an institution of some sort specially devoted to this line of investigation. It appears to me that this institution should comprise the following essential elements: rather extensive grounds, a farm with men experienced in breeding, agriculture, and horticulture, some greenhouses, and a laboratory with the common appliances of chemistry, physiology, and histology. Of course this must be located in the country” (256).

Charles Darwin’s friend, George John Romanes, picking up on a suggestion by Alfred Giard, circulated a letter at the same time that also called for such an institution.

It was not until 1904 that such a call was answered. Funded by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the Station for Experimental Evolution was founded in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Unlike de Varigny, those involved made the “practical and utilitarian results” a primary reason to undertake such work. At its inauguration (33-49), the premiere experimental evolutionist of the day, Hugo de Vries, said that we should not be satisfied with the current observational study of evolution. Instead,

We want to have a share in the work of evolution, since we partake of the fruit. We want even to shape the work, in order to get still better fruits. … Evolution must become an experimental science. First it must be controlled and studied, afterwards conducted along selected lines, and finally shaped to the use of man” (39).


The Station for Experimental Evolution. From left to right: brooder house (for poultry), an experimental garden, and the main building (with a vivarium under construction in front of it). From Popular Science Monthly (April, 1907).

The director, geneticist Charles Davenport, speaking at the same inauguration, said that the station’s work would

“realize that dream of Bacon, who saw in the new Atlantis, gardens devoted to the experimental modification and improvement of animals and plants” (33).

He wrote a couple of years later regarding experimental evolution’s benefits:

“Since when we know the law we may control the process, the principles of evolution will show the way to an improvement of the human race. […] It shows how organisms may be best modified to meet our requirements of beauty, food, materials, and power” (1906, 92).

It should be noted that at Cold Spring Harbor, Davenport, perhaps the most prominent American eugenicist, set up the Eugenics Record Office; the ERO and Station for Experimental Evolution would later fuse into the Department of Genetics. (Later, it would become Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory which still exists today.) Thus, eugenics – in addition to plant and animal breeding – was seen as another practical benefit of experimental evolution. [fn]

At the same time, the grassland ecologist, Frederic Clements (known for his theory of ecological succession and climax), was also calling for an “experimental evolution” (1905, 1907). While I will write a future blog post discussing his methods in more detail, I want to note that unlike the other biologists of the period, Clements actually used the same experimental methods suggested by Francis Bacon over 250 years earlier: transplant experiments. Because of this, Clements said that Bacon’s greatest achievement was in anticipating in definite though crude fashion the methods of experimental evolution, as shown by his six rules for making one plant change into another” (1907, 188).*** He cited rules one and six, but noted that Bacon was “necessarily crude and incorrect” in the specifics. Strangely though, of all the experimental evolutionists, Clements’ work was perhaps the least practical. This is possibly because of his theoretical drive (neo-Lamarckism was wrong), but unlike de Varigny, de Vries, or Davenport, he never argued (as far as I can tell or remember) that experimental evolution should be pursued in part for its practical benefits.

But was Bacon actually influential upon experimental evolution? I suspect not. My guess is that Henry de Varigny found some of these ideas in Francis Bacon’s writings and used Bacon’s ideas as a way to support his argument. After the 1892 publication of his 1890 lectures, I assume that both Davenport and Clements followed up on de Varigny’s citation. It is curious that Clements’ methods follow so closely to Bacon’s rules, but Clements’ direct inspiration was the French neo-Lamarckian Gaston Bonnier. So to answer my own question: No, Francis Bacon is not the father of experimental evolution.

However, experimental evolution could perhaps be considered a Baconian science. If you remove Bacon’s theological goals (the focus of Cosima’s piece), the views of the early experimental evolutionists fall right in line with Bacon’s intentions: scientific research had (and perhaps should have) a practical benefit..The dual notions of basic and applied research within the field of experimental evolution remains to this day; however, my current (and naive) impression is that they have splintered.

* There are a variety of definitions of experimental evolution. I am still currently working mine out for purposes of my broader historical study.

** William Dallinger performs an evolution experiment a few years prior, but I have yet to investigate whether or not he calls it “experimental evolution.”

***  I am not sure if Clements means this is Bacon’s “greatest achievement” in Sylva Sylvarum or with regard to plant modification, or if Clements means this is Bacon’s “greatest achievement” overall.

5 thoughts on “Francis Bacon: The Father of Experimental Evolution?

    • Indeed! The scientists at the time eventually figured out how to stimulate variation (via radiation) but today’s scientists certainly have more control over the process. However, I think some might not consider direct gene editing and insertions as “experimental evolution,” and instead as “synthetic biology.” Future posts will discuss this tension as I start to work on more modern material.

      Thank you for the comment!


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