SpeakersDr Staffan Mueller-Wille, Research Fellow, Egenis
University of Exeter, Byrne House, St Germans Road, Exeter, EX4 4PJ,
Room no: GF7, Byrne House
Time: 3:30 - 5:00 PM
The late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of heredity as one of the central problems of the life sciences. The problem those focused on heredity came to address, however, was not the constancy of species, but rather the fluctuating patterns and processes that structure life at the sub-specific level---that is, the nature of variation. Phenomena of ‘degeneration’ and ‘spontaneous mutation’ on the one hand, as well as the related phenomena of ‘atavism’ and ‘regression’ on the other, caught the attention of naturalists and biologists and called for explanations expressed in terms of ‘laws’ of heredity and variation. This paper will discuss prominent attempts of nineteenth-century life scientists to account for hereditary variation and argue that the solutions they proposed were intimately connected with a biologically (and politically) fundamental issue: the autonomy of the ultimate, constituent parts of living bodies. Framed against this background, the origin of genetics in 1900 appears much less a revolutionary break than it has been depicted by historians. The early concepts of genetics fitted rather well into a scientific landscape that had already been thoroughly shaped, not only by naturalists’ and physiologists’ fixation on individual variation, but also by biomedical and agro-industrial concerns about stable variation.