Matt Holmes was a Postdoctoral Research Associate on the ERC-funded ARTEFACT project and a member of the Centre for Global Knowledge Studies (gloknos). He left CRASSH in February 2022.
Matt joined us from the University of Leeds to research science and agriculture in the British Empire, and continue to develop his research project on the graft hybrid. He worked on the ARTEFACT-Hybrid strand of the project while also contributing to activities with the Centre for Global Knowledge Studies (gloknos).
Matt’s doctoral thesis, ‘From Biological Revolution to Biotech Age: Plant Biotechnology in British Agriculture since 1950,’ was an exploration of the history of plant biotechnology and its application to British agriculture since the 1950s. This looked at the manipulation of crop plants through hybridization and irradiation, as well as the rise of genetic biotechnology. Some of Matt’s other research interests include species history and the history of nineteenth-century natural history.
The Graft Hybrid: How Chimeral Organisms Challenged Genetics (ARTEFACT-Hybrid)
Genetics and the Mendelian principles underlying it are called upon in almost every aspect of our lives. Our genes supposedly determine everything from our personality to future health risks. Human manipulation of the genome through selective breeding and crossing also underpins global agriculture. Yet how did this come to be? Was there a time when our understanding of heredity and breeding could have taken a very different path? ARTEFACT-Hybrid explores a fundamental, yet unexamined, aspect of the history of genetics and biotechnology: the graft hybrid.
At the heart of ARTEFACT-Hybrid is the question of whether grafting could create new plants and animals. Over two millennia ago, Theophrastus of Eresus divided the art of grafting into two. While practitioners of the first type worked in harmony with nature, the second group were troublemakers, who grafted wildly different plants in the hopes of producing such horticultural monstrosities as stoneless or multi-coloured fruit. These monstrosities would later be termed graft hybrids by Charles Darwin in 1868. Following the rediscovery of Mendel’s work in 1900, graft hybridization was used to demonstrate that heredity was more complex than Mendelians believed. The graft hybrid later became a matter of intense intellectual and ideological scrutiny during the Cold War, while recent discoveries that grafted plants can exchange genetic material has revitalised Marxist interpretations of biology and the advocates of genetically modified crops alike.
For much of the twentieth century, the graft hybrid posed a viable challenge to the dominance of Mendelian genetics. ARTEFACT-Hybrid uses this counterfactual history to ask why certain historical paths are taken and how we became set on these paths. The project also examines the creation and distribution of different systems of knowledge. Who was best placed to speak with authority on the existence of graft hybrids? Was it horticulturalists and breeders with their tacit knowledge? Or biologists, supported by the new sciences of physiology and genetics? This division is revelatory of the social turmoil and contingency from which emerged some of our most cherished forms of knowledge.
ARTEFACT-Hybrid is part of the CRASSH project ARTEFACT, which is funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (ERC grant agreement no. 724451)
- Matthew Holmes, Forthcoming, date TBC. The Graft Hybrid: Challenging Twentieth-Century Genetics, University of Pittsburgh Press.
- Matthew Holmes, ‘Anne McLaren, transfusion, transplantation, and the nature of blood’, Hektoen International (Winter 2020).
- Matthew Holmes, ‘Melancholy Consequences: Britain’s Long Relationship with Agricultural Chemicals since the Mid-Eighteenth Century’, Environment and History 25 (2019): pp. 117-134.
- Matthew Holmes, ‘Somatic Hybridization: The Rise and Fall of a Mid-Twentieth Century Biotechnology’, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 48, 1 (2018): pp. 1-23.
- Matthew Holmes, ‘The Sparrow Question: Social and Scientific Accord in Britain, 1850-1900’, Journal of the History of Biology 50, 3 (2017): pp. 645-671.
- Matthew Holmes, ‘Changing Techniques in Crop Plant Classification: Molecularization at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany during the 1980s’ Annals of Science 74, 2 (2017): pp. 149-164.
- Matthew Holmes, ‘The Perfect Pest: Natural History and the Red Squirrel in Nineteenth-Century Scotland’, Archives of Natural History 42, 1 (2015): pp. 113-125.
- Review of Ellinor Michel (editor), ‘Anchoring Biodiversity Information: From Sherborn to the 21st Century and Beyond’ (ZooKeys), in Archives of Natural History 44, 2 (2017): pp. 380-381.
- Review of Robert Fortune, ‘Yedo and Peking: A Narrative of a Journey to the Capitals of Japan and China’ (London: J Murray, 1863), in SHNH Newsletter 110 (2016): pp. 13-14.
- Review of Thor Hansen, ‘The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History’, (New York: Basic Books, 2015), in The British Journal for the History of Science 49,1 (2016): pp. 147-148.
- Review of Elizabeth Kolbert, ‘The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History’, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2014), in The Quarterly Review of Biology 90, 2 (2015): pp. 214.
Conferences & Papers
- ‘The Long History of Biotechnology and its Relevance to the Debate over GM Crops’, London Public Understanding of Science (PUS) Seminar, London School of Economics (October 2016)
- ‘Why the British Didn’t Accept GM: Historical Perspectives’, Three Societies Meeting, University of Alberta (June 2016)
- ‘Twentieth-Century Biotechnology in the British Landscape: Historical Reflections’, Technology, Environment and Modern Britain Workshop, University College London (April 2016); Science in Public Conference, University of Kent (July 2016)
- ‘Malthus’s Shallow Grave: The Population Bomb (1968) and British Agricultural Science’, British Society for Literature and Science Conference, University of Birmingham (April 2016)
- ‘Electrophoresis, Spectroscopy and Machine Vision: Taxonomic Practice in Agricultural Botany during the 1980s’, British Society for the History of Science Postgraduate Conference, University of Cambridge (January 2016)