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The Life Sciences, 1900–2000: Analysis and Social Welfare from Mendel and Koch to Biotech and Conservation

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The life sciences underwent a dramatic transformation during the twentieth century, with an expansion in fundamental knowledge of the process of evolution and its molecular basis, through advances in health care that greatly extended human life, and by the combination of these advances to address the problem of conserving the many forms of life threatened by expanding human society. The essay highlights the worldwide emphasis on social welfare in the years 1945–1980 and the expanding role of international collaboration, especially in the International Biological Program and its advances in ecology and the notion of the biosphere, and in the emergence of molecular biology. This was also the era of the Cold War, yet military confrontation had fewer implications for life sciences than for the natural sciences in that era. After 1980, deregulation and neoliberalism weakened programs for social welfare, yet links among the varying strands of life sciences continued to grow, bringing the development of genomics and its many implications, expanding epidemiology to include reliance on social sciences, and deepening ecological studies as the Anthropocene became more and more prevalent. In sum, the experience of the life sciences should make it clear to world historians that scientific advance goes beyond the achievements of brilliant but isolated researchers: those same advances rely substantially on social movements, migration, and the exchange of knowledge across intellectual and physical boundaries.

Affiliations: 1: Andrew W. Mellon, Professor of World History, Emeritus, University of Pittsburgh


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