The long rise of genetics

By Razib Khan | June 1, 2013 5:45 am

I was curious about the broader interest in various fields of biology over the course of the 20th century, so I looked at Ngram. In case you aren’t aware this is a tool that Google set up so you can query the frequency of a particular word or phrase (actually, there’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the most elementary use). The limitations here is that these books are all English. Overall, the results surprised me.

Obviously you need to click the image to see the bigger version. But you’ll notice that between 1967 and 1974 there was a sharp rise in interest in ecology. I suspect this is the conflation of environmentalism with ecology which only came to the fore with the 1960s counter-culture revolution. Also, while genetics has been slowly gaining over the 20th century, biochemistry has been going into decline after 1985. This is also the same time that physiology began to drop in mentions. Hypotheses?

  • Mark Woodley

    It could be in part displacement Molecular Biology keeps climbing quite sharply into the 90’s

  • Scott

    Do another one with the actual numbers, that will give us a better picture.

  • Sandgroper

    No hypothesis, but my daughter tells me metabolomics could be the next big thing in medicine.

    • Kevin Bonham

      Metabolomics and metagenomics (related) are definitely going to be important – but they’re so complicated and so hard to study that I’m not sure if it will ever break into the public consciousness.

      • Sandgroper

        My daughter gave me a value-add comment:

        “I did a keyword trend search on Baidu. Biochemistry gets half as many hits as Genetics, but both are holding steady over time. There’s also a graph showing attention from the media, and that shows nothing on Biochemistry at all (she means the Chinese media, obviously, but it would not surprise me if that were true generally). So, plenty of home users are interested in Biochemistry, but the media aren’t. Predictable enough.”

  • Dmitry Pruss

    Mixed bag of science and pop sci vs. general culture? Physiology has been a term of mass culture for a long time, standing for a belief that a human behavior boiled down to more than just one’s mind and soul; but it’s a stale word now. Ecology entered mass culture rather abruptly, and it more or less stands for nature-worshiping / for concerns about Nature’s well-being; it’s rarely uttered in a context of science now. Ecology made a leap into public conscience quite abruptly, in a way independent of scientific progress, but instead precipitated by man-made disasters and widely popular books such as Commoner’s. Genetics also crept into public culture domain, but this has been catalyzed by the actual progress of genetic discovery and genetic technology, and therefore it progressed in many waves. Of course microbiology and biochemistry, as words, remain confined to the actual,scientific usage; nothing figurative or symbolic about these two words, and it’s patently obvious from the graph.

  • illinoisjoe

    You get a very different picture if you take the “S” off “genetics”. Try it!

  • stevesailer

    The second rise in usage of “ecology” was in roughly 1988-1995. In my recollection that is associated with Edward O. Wilson’s campaign for biodiversity, especially saving the rain forests.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar