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Egenis · Research

A Cultural History of Heredity (2004-2010)

Staffan Mueller-Wille

Start date




Funded by

This project has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Counci, British Academy, British Council, German Academic Exchange Service, the Wellcome Trust, and by a Karl-Schaedler Grant (Principality of Lichtenstein). It is carried out in close collaboration with the Centre for Medical History and the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science.


Since 2001, Staffan Mueller-Wille has been pursuing a project in collaboration with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, on the “Cultural History of Heredity.” This project centres on the scientific and technological practices in which knowledge of "heredity" was materially entrenched and in which it unfolded its effects since the Early Modern Period. In this, knowledge of "heredity" is taken as something more than the scientific discipline "genetics", namely as a knowledge regime in which a naturalistic conception has historically been realized that influences all areas of modern society, including medical, jurisdictional and political discourses. To explore the changing practices, standards, and architectures of this regime as well as their particular historical conjunctions from a "long durée" perspective is the aim of the project. The project is collaborative and interdisciplinary in its nature, aiming to draw together expertise from historical disciplines, with which the history of science otherwise has far too little contact, as the history of medicine, law, economics, and art as well as political history and anthropology. An essay collection on the history of heredity from the early 16th to the 19th century has appeared with MIT Press. Mueller-Wille and Rheinberger also co-authored two books in German, one on heredity, one on the gene, which intend to communicate results from the overall project to a broadly defined, non-specialist audience. They have completed an English translation of the book on heredity which is published by the University of Chicago Press. They are working on an English translation, which is currently under review with University of Chicago Press. For more information on the project see the Max Planck project website.


  • The project focuses on the cultural practices in which knowledge of heredity was generated and in which it unfolded its effects over the last four hundred years.
  • We consider knowledge of heredity to be more than the science of genetics. Over the centuries a concept of heredity evolved in all areas of modern society, including medicine, jurisdiction and politics. The aim of the project is to explore the changing practices, standards, and architectures of this knowledge regime with a long term perspective.


  • The backbone of the project consists of a series of international workshops dedicated to certain epochs in the cultural history of heredity.
  • The workshops bring together scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, including historians of science, medicine, law, art, and literature.


  • As a biological concept, heredity only came into use in the early nineteenth century. Before, generation was understood as a singular act of procreation. Hereditary and environmental factors were not really distinguished.
  • Heredity was a term that was originally used in legal contexts only, meaning “inheritance” or “succession”. Its use as a metaphor to describe phenomena connected with the reproduction of organisms dates from late eighteenth-century medical texts on familial diseases. It was subsequently adopted in a number of areas like breeding, natural history, anthropology, and public health. This development was fuelled by the transplantation of people and organisms that occurred in the context of urbanization, industrialization, and colonialism.
  • By the mid-nineteenth century, heredity had moved into the centre of biological thought. The French psychiatrist Prosper Lucas and the English naturalists Charles Darwin and Francis Galton were the most important “synthesisers” of current knowledge of heredity. Galton’s notion of “ancestral inheritance”, according to which the inheritance of a person was made of contributions from all its ancestors, proved widely influential among medical practitioners and breeders. The mechanism of inheritance became one of the main concerns of cytologists and developmental biologists at the end of the century.
  • The rise of genetics in the early twentieth-century was connected to concerns with the standardization, recombination, and perpetuation of innovations in industrial and administrative contexts, especially agriculture and public health. Much research into heredity in the early twentieth century took place in applied contexts like seed production, breeding yeast and cereals for large-scale beer production, mass-production of vaccines, efforts to further public health, or administration of psychiatric hospitals. Increasing levels of division of labour and bureaucratic control in these areas led to the establishment of a culture of expertise and scientificity.
  • An important property of this culture of expertise was its obsession with purity. Purity was an instrument of control, as results could be ‘checked’ against their inputs. It enabled practitioners to ‘fix’ characters and create identifiable and specifiable products. It created a set of discrete and stable life forms, rather than an uncontrolled continuum of variations. And it held a promise to divorce practices from the vagaries of historical tradition. In order to advertise, trade-mark, or patent agricultural or microbiological innovations, production methods had to be made transparent and reliable reproduction guaranteed. Heredity was commodified to become heritability, a marketable quality.
  • Mendelism entailed conditions and costs that precluded many areas from adopting it. To do Mendelian experiments, organisms had to be first inbred, then cross-bred, and finally raised in large numbers. Asexual organisms and humans, but also many agriculturally significant animals, like cows, could not be subjected to such a practice. This is one of the main reasons, why animal breeding and clinical medicine became ‘geneticized’ only well after WWII, and why statistical approaches, developed by the so-called biometrical school long before the advent of Mendelism already, persisted in these areas to finally merge with population and quantitative genetics.

Policy implications

  • Heredity is not an evident phenomenon. It became visible to biology late in its history, as it depended on specialized institutions and practices. Many of the key concepts of modern genetics, like gene or heritability, are therefore difficult to intuit.
  • Many of the older ways of thinking about reproduction persist alongside more technical, scientific notions of inheritance. Thinking in terms of generation or ancestral inheritance is still widespread, and also makes sense in a lot of contexts, like assisted reproduction or animal breeding.


Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. 2012. A Cultural History of Heredity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Staffan Müller-Wille. 2010. “Claude Lévi-Strauss on race, history, and genetics.” BioSocieties, vol. 5(3): 330–347.

Staffan Müller-Wille and Maureen O’Malley (eds.). 2010. Special Issue “Historical and Philosophical Perspectives on Cell Biology.” Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences 41(3).

Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. 2009. Das Gen im Zeitalter der Postgenomik. Eine wissenschaftshistorische Bestandsaufnahme [The Gene in the Postgenomic Age: A Historical Appraisal]. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.

Staffan Müller-Wille. 2009. “The Dark Side of Evolution: Caprice, Deceit, Redundancy.” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 31(2): 183–199.

Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (eds.). 2008. “Race and Genomics: Old Wine in New Bottles? Documents from a Transdisciplinary Discussion.“ NTM – Journal of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, 16(3): 363–386.

Staffan Müller-Wille. “Hybrids, pure cultures, and pure lines: From nineteenth-century biology to twentieth-century genetics.” Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 38(4): 796–806.

Mueller-Wille, S. and Rheinberger, H.J. (eds.), Heredity Produced. At the Crossroads of Biology, Politics and Culture, 1500-1870, Cambridge: MIT Press (Transformations. Studies in the History of Science and Technology, ed. J Buchwald), 2007.

Mueller-Wille, S. with Vitezslav Orel (2007) From Linnaean Species to Mendelian Factors: Elements of Hybridism, 1751-1870, Annals of Science 64/2, 171-215

Mueller-Wille, S.(2005) Early Mendelism and the subversion of taxonomy: Epistemological obstacles as institutions, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 36/3, 465-487.

Mueller-Wille, S.with Rheinberger, H.J., "Gene“, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Biology, ed. A. Plutynsky & S. Sarkar, Oxford: Blackwell (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy), spring 2006.

Preprints: Conference: A Cultural History of Heredity III: 19th and Early 20th Centuries, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Preprint, vol. 294, Berlin: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, 2005.

Electronic Publication Mueller-Wille, S.with Rheinberger, H.J., ’Gene’, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2004 Edition

The book project on "Race and Progress" is on-going. Results of preparatory case studies has been published as:'Early Mendelism and the subversion of taxonomy: Epistemological obstacles as institutions', Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 36, 3, 2005, pp. 465-487.