Books  General Natural History  History of Science 

A Cultural History of Heredity

By: Staffan Müller-Wille(Author), Hans-Jörg Rheinberger(Author)

323 pages, 16 b/w photos, 9 b/w illustrations

University of Chicago Press

Hardback | Aug 2012 | #198162 | ISBN-13: 9780226545707
Availability: Usually dispatched within 4 days Details
NHBS Price: £28.99 $38/€32 approx

About this book

It was only around 1800 that heredity began to enter debates among physicians, breeders, and naturalists. Soon thereafter it evolved into one of the most fundamental concepts of biology. Here Staffan Muller-Wille and Hans-Jorg Rheinberger offer a succinct cultural history of the scientific concept of heredity. They outline the dramatic changes the idea has undergone since the early modern period and describe the political and technological developments that brought about these changes.

Muller-Wille and Rheinberger begin with an account of premodern theories of generation, showing that these were concerned with the procreation of individuals rather than with hereditary transmission. The authors reveal that when hereditarian thinking first emerged, it did so in a variety of cultural domains, such as politics and law, medicine, natural history, breeding, and anthropology. Muller-Wille and Rheinberger then track theories of heredity from the late nineteenth century – when leading biologists considered it in light of growing societal concerns with race and eugenics--through the rise of classical and molecular genetics in the twentieth century, to today, as researchers apply sophisticated information technologies to understand heredity. What readers come to see from this exquisite history is why it took such a long time for heredity to become a prominent concept in the life sciences and why it gained such overwhelming importance in those sciences and the broader culture over the last two centuries.

"A Cultural History of Heredity is an enormously interesting and persuasive book that will speak not only to historians of science but also to biologists and general social and intellectual historians interested in the interface between the nitty-gritty of biology and the backdrop of social and cultural affairs."
- Frederick B. Churchill, Indiana University

"Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger masterfully delineate the evolution of the concept of heredity since the late eighteenth century, its transformation from the cultural metaphors of gardens and families to the biological tools of genetic engineering and the genome. Breathtaking in scope, their book ranges across multiple national boundaries and illuminates how ideas of heredity were – and continue to be – shaped by forces of culture, law, medicine, technology, and markets. In all, a compelling and original synthesis of a vast body of primary sources and recent scholarship."
- Daniel J. Kevles, Yale University

"In this original and insightful book Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger do not take the concept of heredity for granted. Rather they offer an account of the rise of the epistemic space in which heredity took shape as a biological concept and moved to the forefront of biological research. Deeply informed and covering much ground, the book is certain to provide rich food for thought and stimulate further investigation."
- Soraya de Chadarevian, University of California, Los Angeles



Chapter 1: Heredity: Knowledge and Power
Chapter 2: Generation, Reproduction, Evolution
Chapter 3: Heredity in Separate Domains
Chapter 4: First Syntheses
Chapter 5: Heredity, Race, and Eugenics
Chapter 6: Disciplining Heredity
Chapter 7: Heredity and Molecular Biology
Chapter 8: Gene Technology, Genomics, Postgenomics: Attempt at an Outlook


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Staffan Müller-Wille is a senior lecturer and research associate with the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society and the Centre for Medical History, both at the University of Exeter. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger is director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. They are the editors of Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology, Politics, and Culture, 1500-1870.

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