Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology, Politics, and Culture, 1500-1870

By Miller, Laura | Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, October 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology, Politics, and Culture, 1500-1870


Miller, Laura, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies


STAFFAN MÜLLER-WILLE AND HANS-JÖRG RHEINBERG, EDS. Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology, Politics, and Culture, 1500-1870. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007. 496 pp. $52. Reviewed by Laura Miller

Deep passions among relatives, wayward kin attempting to claim inheritance, tasty strawberries, and sheepherding are not solely the territory of Thomas Hardy. Instead, these are among the topics addressed in Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology, Politics, and Culture, 1500-1870, an ambitious collection in the Transformations series from MIT Press. Heredity Produced, edited by Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, has an interesting lineage of its own. Since 2001, the editors have been part of a research project at the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science in Berlin that investigates heredity's cultural history. This collection includes essays from participants in the institute's workshops, as well as solicited contributions from other scholars. Heredity Produced contains nineteen essays and is organized into five sections: Heredity In the Legal Context; Heredity and Medicine; Natural History, Breeding, and Hybridization; Theories of Generation and Evolution; and Anthropology. For those who teach undergraduate history of science classes, or who have a more general interest in the topic, the editors have announced that a companion volume, aimed at a broader audience, is in preparation.

One goal of this collection is to understand how the "knowledge regime" (15) of heredity functioned during the centuries prior to its conceptual solidity. Power, legality, and race-topics important in contemporary discussions of heredity-are also crucial to a historical understanding of heredity. The collection sets out to evaluate the turning points that helped compose this knowledge regime, per its title situating itself "at the crossroads of biology, politics and culture." Each of the collection's contributors peers down one, two, or sometimes all three, avenues of this crossroads.

The collection is strong on biology, even in unlikely places. Readers who bypass the section on Heredity in the Legal Context to concentrate on Heredity and Medicine would miss relevant information: David Warren Sabean's descriptions of the ways that Galenic or Aristotelian views were reproduced in discourses on early modern marriage and Silvia De Renzi's analysis of when physical resemblance began to be used as evidence in paternity cases. In the section on Heredity and Medicine, Carlos López-Beltrán tracks the term "heredity"'s transformation from being used as a metaphor for understanding traits to being understood as a cause of those traits. López-Beltrán considers the ways that changes in medical discourse from 1600 to 1800 both influenced and were influenced by changing perspectives on inheritance. Later in the volume, Ohad S. Parnes considers a similarly shifting perspective from the standpoint of genetics: "the establishment of heredity as a universal scientific category was the direct result of a wider epistemological shift . . . namely, the conceptualization of populations in terms of generations" (316).

Within the field of biology, the collection's other topics range from Philip K. Wilson's analysis of Erasmus Darwin's writings on gout to François Duchesneau's considerations of why cell theory and heredity were slow to align. Whereas Roger J. Wood studies changes in the ways sheep breeders understood inbreeding as a useful preparatory step to controlling the breeding process, Nicolas Pethes considers a different sort of animal experiment in "'Victor, enfant de la forêt': Experiments on Heredity in Savage Children." Marc J. Ratcliff studies Antoine-Nicolas Duchesne, who engaged with several disciplines, "the grower's know-how, botanical theory, and aristocratic conceptions of descent" (207), in the construction of a genealogical tree for strawberries. Rather than giving the impression of a random series of unconnected essays, the studies in this volume share rigorous methodologies and compelling interpretations of how heredity evolved as a concept. …

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