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Emergence of Genetic Rationality

Space, Time, and Information in American Biological Science, 1870-1920

by Phillip Thurtle

Publication Year: 2008

The emergence of genetic science has profoundly shaped how we think about biology. Indeed, it is difficult now to consider nearly any facet of human experience without first considering the gene. But this mode of understanding life is not, of course, transhistorical. Phillip Thurtle takes us back to the moment just before the emergence of genetic rationality at the turn of the twentieth century to explicate the technological, economic, cultural, and even narrative transformations necessary to make genetic thinking possible.

Published by: University of Washington Press


Title Page

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pp. vi-x

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pp. xi-2

I have been extraordinarily lucky to have worked with many intelligent and compassionate colleagues, and it is not possible to thank them all. There are a few, however, who directly contributed to this project and who deserve special thanks. Robert Mitchell has been the best of friends and colleagues. He read multiple drafts of the manuscript...

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pp. 3-26

It is so obvious that it is easy to miss: classical genetics was a science of record keeping. Discerning the heritable traits of an individual required following the inheritance of these traits in the individual’s offspring. For slow-breeding organisms this called for documenting the passage of traits over numerous generations and in large populations. All of this...

I. Harnessing Heredity: Middle Class Mores and Information Management in Large-Scale Breeding

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pp. 27-28

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pp. 29-32

In the spring of 1891, a telegraph messenger interrupted a speech by Indiana University president David Starr Jordan with a note from his mentor, the great Andrew Dickson White. The note simply read: “Decline no offer from California till you hear from me.”1 Leland Stanford had offered the presidency of his new university to White. Although...

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1. Middle Class Mores: Beaufort’s Bastards

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pp. 33-50

Newland Archer dined one evening in the 1870s with his mother; his sister, Miss Sophy Jackson; and the authority on New York’s families, the old bachelor Sillerton Jackson. The news about the imminent financial collapse of a prominent banker, Julius Beaufort, had been the topic of conversation for weeks now. The participants in the...

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2. Breeding True: Processing a New Elite

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pp. 51-66

Trotting-horse historian Dwight Akers claimed that the Vanderbilt-Bonner duel “marked the beginning of a change that provided the sport not only with the strong financial backing but an efficient leadership.”1 As many of the industrialists turned to racing trotters, they made use of the developments that their industries promoted: “large scale investments...

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Conclusion: “A Backward Glance”: Corporate Inheritance as Bastard Birth

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pp. 67-70

Sitting alone in his study on a day near the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Edith Wharton’s Newland Archer contemplated the changes that had occurred over the previous twenty-six years. The material changes in his world are immense: automobiles have transformed personal transportation (making trotting horses even less useful...

II. Fish-Market Phenomenology: The Habits of Thought and the Space of Exchange in Late Nineteenth-Century Natural History

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pp. 71-72

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pp. 73-78

The Smithsonian Institute had just purchased an early version of the telephone, or “far speaker,” when David Starr Jordan arrived in Washington, D.C., for the first time in 1877. “Connecting the basement with the fourth story, we were greatly amazed and delighted to find that we could hear over the wires. In case of doubt, one would...

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3. The Political Economy of Natural History

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pp. 79-92

If, in the previous section, Edith Wharton's upstart Beaufort and his trotters provided an encapsulation of the middle-class mores of the rising industrialists, in this chapter, a passage from Theodore Dreiser’s novel, The Financier, provides a similarly representative scene. Dreiser imagines the pivotal role that the observation of natural history...

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4. Homologous Networks of Exchange: The Intersubjective Infrastructure of Scientific Exchange

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pp. 93-115

in their recent volume Science in the Field, Henrika Kucklick and Robert Kohler point to a common denominator between field science and imperial power: “Infrastructure for transport and travel is the common denominator of the imperial connection. Field scientists must travel, preferably to unfamiliar areas far from home, and . . . the global...

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5. Categorizing Experience: Space and Time in Nineteenth-Century Natural History

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pp. 116-132

The trend toward virtual specimens supported a bifurcated spatial dynamic in late nineteenth-century American history: along with an increased reliance on the medium of national exchange came an increased stress on the importance of local experience. At first glance, these two trends might seem contradictory. One might at first suppose...

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6. The Pacific Railway Survey: The Subject in the Panoramic Mode

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pp. 133-144

Capitalizing on the support from the Army Corps of Engineers, well organized specialized collecting efforts, and massive amounts of raw data, Baird published an unwieldy thirteen volumes of observations from the Pacific Railroad Survey between 1855 and 1860. Although “fur-traders, the travelers, and the earlier government explorers” provided a “good...

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Conclusion: Fish-Market Phenomenology

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pp. 145-146

Although Young Cowperwood, Dreiser's “financier,” grew up in a community where mercantile exchange was the predominant form of economic activity, he would make most of his fortune through the development of large-scale transportation systems. Extended mercantile networks would be used to develop large-scale industrial manufacturing. The ornate pigeonholes of the Wooten would give way to the...

III. History Writing Great Men Writing History: Recapitulation Narratives and Stories as Scientific Models

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pp. 147-148

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pp. 149-152

Perhaps it is too obvious to deserve comment, but everyone who has read a late nineteenth-century novel or work of nonfiction knows how expansive these treatises can be. Although written in the early twentieth century, David Starr Jordan’s autobiography is a good example of the unrestrained character of late nineteenth-century representational...

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7. Storied Pasts

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pp. 153-171

Heredity is a paradox: how can an individual be unique—existing in a distinct moment in time—as well as be part of a dynamic continuity extending deep into the past and far into the future? We live our lives feeling as if we are isolated individuals, yet networks of kinship and shared continuities in development structure this experience...

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8. The Plot Thickens: The Political Economic Dimensions of Biological Stories

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pp. 172-202

Stories are important to hereditarian thought because they animate a succession of events into a coherent and dynamic framework. Peter Brooks suggests that plots of stories “are not simply organizing structures, they are also intentional structures, goal oriented and forward moving.”1 For my purposes, the analysis of plot elements allows me to see the...

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Conclusion: Osborn and the Horse: The Conservative Literary Inheritance of Evolutionary Stories

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pp. 203-206

You can still see them at the American Museum of Natural History, “the largest collection of fossil-horse skeletons in the world” (see figure 8.4). The collecting of fossil horse skeletons began as early as 1891, although the first full exhibit demonstrating horse evolution was not publicly displayed until 1908.1 Because of its institutional prominence...

IV. The Poetics of Wandering: Time, Narrative, and the Affective/Phenomenological Body

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pp. 207-208

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pp. 209-215

David Starr Jordan supposed that given the right resources, the correct training, and the proper selective environment, individuals with reserve force would rise to lead the nation. Jordan even gives a brief mention at the end of the first volume of his autobiography of some of the accomplished Stanford graduates between 1892 and 1899.1 The most...

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9. Wandering and Narrative

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pp. 216-228

In part three, I concentrated on the ways that recapitulation stories structured evolutionary discourse and supported the panoramic mode’s experience of space and time. In Part Four, I return to many of these stories to explore the insights that turn-of-the-century recapitulation stories offer into the panoramic mode’s recognition of variance within...

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10. Wandering and Inheritance in Light of the Sensory-Motor Complex

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pp. 229-241

Stephen Greenblatt has written on the fascinating inverse relationship between wandering and possession: one cannot wander unless one gives up his or her possessions. In his chapter on Sir John Mandeville, Greenblatt claims that Mandeville wrote about “what it means not to take possession, about circulation or wandering as an alternate to...

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11. Writing, Goods, and Memory

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pp. 242-265

Personal ownership, writing, and memory tightly linked in the panoramic mode of processing information. As we saw in Part Two, goods still provided the basis for most forms of biological knowledge. Most goods, however, do not speak by themselves and cannot provide memories on their own. An interpretive agent is needed to tell the...

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Conclusion: New Folds in Space and Time

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pp. 266-268

In part four, I have used the prominent panoramic mode trope of “wandering” as a means of hybridizing a theoretically concrete position on the role of information processing with locomotion, sensation, and affect. Specifically, I extended earlier observations of class-based notions of distinction (Part One), the phenomenological domain of...

V. Hybrid Space, Hybrid Time: Record Keeping and the Indexing of Genomic Space and Time

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pp. 269-270

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pp. 271-273

On a July evening in 1904, naturalist and president of Stanford University David Starr Jordan sat down to a dinner in honor of the visiting botanist Hugo De Vries. De Vries had traveled across the continent with the intention of meeting the popular hero Luther Burbank. Over the last few decades, Burbank had garnered a reputation as a wizard...

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12. Industrial Perspectives: Luther Burbank

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pp. 274-289

The Central Pacific Railroad Line was completed in 1869. One year later, a shipment of Californian Bartlett pears arrived in New York.1 Railroad transportation dramatically changed the distribution and the production of plants and in doing so opened up new ways of conceiving of humankind’s relationship to the environment...

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13. Record Keeping: A Post-Hermeneutic Means for Charting the Space of Flows

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pp. 290-305

As De Vries noted, large breeding experiments required immense record keeping. It is much too easy to overlook this development when evaluating the history of genetics. The extensive use of purebred laboratory organisms with quick breeding times hides the amount of work required to identify the passage of traits in a more diverse...

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Conclusion: The Different Domains of Life

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pp. 306-308

As David Starr Jordan listened to Hugo De Vries that July night in 1904, Burbank existed as a conceptual bridge between two biologists whose spatial practices had honed two different logics for explaining the complexity of life. On the one hand, Burbank appealed to De Vries because he applied the scale of industrial enterprises to produce...


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pp. 309-344


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pp. 345-366


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pp. 367-381

E-ISBN-13: 9780295990347
E-ISBN-10: 0295990341
Print-ISBN-13: 9780295987507
Print-ISBN-10: 0295987502

Publication Year: 2008

In Vivo is dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of the medical and life sciences, with a focus on the scientific and cultural practices used to process data, model knowledge, and communicate about biomedical science. Through historical, artistic, media, social, and literary analysis, books in the series seek to understand and explain the key conceptual issues that animate and inform biomedical developments.