The concept of heredity is fundamental to how we see ourselves and others. It goes far beyond the obvious continuity of physical traits across generations. We routinely ascribe similarities in personality, intellect, outlook, and aptitude between family members to what's passed down in sperm and eggs. The simple idea that children take after their ancestors has long been central to science and medicine and to the breeding of plants and animals. It has also been used for ideological purposes to impute innate differences in character and rationality between males and females and among different ethnicities and social classes. Slavery, colonialism, and genocide, the unequal treatment of women, and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few have been consistently rationalized in the language of heredity and 'natural' hierarchy.
In this Very Short Introduction John Waller traces the diverse ideas about biological inheritance expressed by Europeans and their colonial descendants during two millennia of human history. He charts the changing ways in which scholars and laypersons have believed heredity to work, the development of spurious and self-serving beliefs about heredity by dominant groups, the recent revolution in our ability to understand the mechanics of heredity, and the difficult dilemmas our species is likely to face as we gain increasing mastery over the contents of our own genomes.
"A terrific study that interlaces the science with stimulating discussions about the ways in which hereditarian ideas once played out in eugenics, slavery, IQ and gender relations, including the ethical dilemmas of modern medical research."
– Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: A Biography
1: Heredity in antiquity
2: Ideas of heredity in Medieval Europe, 500 AD-1450 AD
3: Heredity in the early modern world, 1450-1700
4: Heredity in the Enlightenment
5: Heredity in the nineteenth century
6: The discovery of the gene
7: The rise and rise of medical genetics
8: Uncertain progress: race, class and gender, 1900-2016
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John Waller has taught at University College London and the University of Melbourne, and is currently an associate professor of the history of science and medicine at Michigan State University. He is the author of several books on scientific discovery and social history, including Fabulous Science (OUP, 2002), The Discovery of the Germ (Columbia, 2003), Leaps in the Dark (OUP, 2004), and A Time to Dance, A Time To Die (Icon, 2009). He is currently completing a study of the history of dehumanization.