William Bateson (1861-1926) was a biologist and evolutionary theorist who was best known in his time for rediscovering and defending the genetic paradigm of Gregor Mendel.
Prior to his rediscovery of Mendel in or around 1900, William Bateson’s work focused on biological variation, in the hopes of elucidating specific mechanisms of natural selection. His prominence as a biologist in his time increased as he defended Mendelism and (with his colleagues, who were atypically for his time often women) experimentally verified it. He has been said (not only by his son) to have “invented” the word genetics, in 1907, and was key in establishing genetics as a science. Nonetheless, he subsequently was disappointed in Mendelism because in the early 20th Century he felt that the emerging science of genes and chromosomes was inadequate to the larger questions of the origin of species which he had hoped originally to investigate.
Some of these larger questions have been revived in the contemporary science of evolutionary development or “evo devo.” A newfound understanding of the importance of developmental timing in gene expression has renewed an interest in the kinds of variation which William Bateson studied in his 1894 book Materials for the Study of Variation.
William Bateson’s natural history of variation addresses fundamental matters of form and architecture of living things, as well as the “monsters” created when development takes divergent turns. It addresses modularity and repetition as key to the structure and development of organisms (as noted by Sean Carroll in his 2005 book Endless Forms Most Beautiful, pp.25-6).
These aspects of life and its structure and development also point towards what is now called biosemiotics, which treats of the “messages” that constitute and pervade living systems. William Bateson’s son Gregory Bateson revisited his father’s work in a 1972 article “The Re-Examination of Bateson’s Rule,” published in the Journal of Genetics founded by his father. This article includes one of the earliest examples in print of Gregory Bateson’s concept of information as “the difference that makes a difference,” and in this context the differences in question occur in the course of the timing of an organism’s development.
Gregory Bateson quoted his father as saying, “If you want to put salt on a bird’s tail, you will be advised not to look at the bird while you approach it,” and then said of his father that “He was always trying to put salt on the tail of nature and particularly to catch that component of nature which we might as well call Mind.” (Alan Cock and Donald Forsdyke, Treasure Your Exceptions (2008) p. 662.)