Tuesday, 26 April 2011
The Gene: A Concept in Flux
Staffan Müller-Wille, Department of History
University of Exeter
817R Cathedral of Learning
Abstract: Despite recent criticisms, there is hardly any doubt, that “the gene” played an exorbitant role in the history of twentieth century life sciences. As many have observed, it has functioned as a central organizing theme for twentieth-century biology. It is also clear from the history of genetics and molecular biology, however, that there never existed a universally accepted, stable definition of the gene. In the course of its history, this concept has variously been defined as a unit of transmission, recombination, mutation and function. The concept of the gene was in continual flux throughout its history, and it seems that this is a typical feature of historically influential and productive scientific concepts, as Yehuda Elkana argued more than 30 years ago.
I want to argue in my presentation that the gene owed its position as a central organizing theme in twentieth-century biology to its being such a concept in flux. Moreover, I want to explore the foundations of classical genetics, focusing on Mendel in a first step, and then on Correns and Johannsen, to understand what it was that turned the gene into such a scientifically fruitful concept. In short, my argument will be that concepts in flux relate different “epistemic spaces” or research domains, such as transmission and development, not in a one-to-one, deterministic fashion, but rather by many-to-many relationships. Reduction in genetics (and perhaps beyond) is a research strategy resulting in a proliferation of phenomena, not in simplification.