In 1903, the Scripps Marine Association was founded in La Jolla, San Diego. It was rechristened the Scripps Institution of Oceanography two decades later. Today it is one of the largest marine research institutions in the world. The present study aims to reconstruct the history of this institution during the first years of its existence, the life of its first director, W. E. Ritter, and the cultural and scientific background of both. In particular, through the use of archival sources and unpublished materials, the essay reports on Ritter’s dream to import a form of holistic biology from Europe to southern California. This biology, which Ritter termed “organismal,” had to challenge reductionist and mechanist approaches to life sciences, including Weismann’s and Mendelian’s theories of heredity, both considered ideologically biased, politically dangerous, and scientifically flawed. Ritter believed that his new biology had to be grounded in a pluralist approach where laboratory and field investigations went hand in hand. In addition, the new biology had to support a progressivist political agenda whereby biological studies were linked with the political progress and the democratization of California and the United States. Despite its ambitions, Ritter’s research program was rapidly forgotten after the 1930s. In the conclusion, the article explores a few possible hypotheses explaining why this happened.
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