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  • Introduction:Genetics and French Culture
  • Louise Lyle

There is nothing new in mankind's fascination with the determinisms that shape biological destiny, as demonstrated by the illustration entitled "Des Enfantemens Monstrueux, de la cause de leur generation [sic]" from 1575 (Figure 1). These forces are, and always have been, most apparent and familiar in forming organic templates for the basic unitary building block of human societies, the family, in which offspring emerge as a consequence of parentage, and siblings and cousins exist as variations on a theme. Since the Enlightenment, however, the development of a succession of scientific paradigms and methodologies concerned with the heredity and evolution of mankind has facilitated the formation of new biological, or at least biologised, models for human history on a much grander scale. Modern science views the biological connections between successive generations as links in a much bigger evolutionary chain, extending back beyond the most distant realms of human memory into the pre-historic reaches of a far-removed and incomprehensible animal consciousness, to whose existence an incomplete fossil record and the only recently legible text of the human genome bear witness. In its most reductively 'scientific' form, this tendency has given rise to theories that seek to explicate human beings, in all their emotional, intellectual, and creative complexity, as mere living vehicles for the transmission of so-called "selfish genes."1

Yet, just as any understanding of the human being as a collection of animated molecules driven by basic instincts to cohere long enough to pass on its genetic inheritance is incomplete, so too is any conceptualisation of genetics as a drily reductive laboratory science. Indeed, as the distinguished historian of science Jacques Roger noted,

Il est certain en effet qu'on ne peut comprendre l'histoire de la génétique, au sens plein du mot "histoire," si on se limite à l'étude des théories et encore moins si on se limite à l'étude des théories qui sont toujours admises aujourd'hui, ou si on se limite à l'étude des grands savants et de la recherche universitaire.2

Roger followed this assertion with the proposal that any authentic history of genetics must take account of research done in the domains of agriculture and livestock rearing in an argument that does not seem so very audacious, given that the genetic practice of artificial selection is known to have been used in farming as long ago as the 12th century B.C.3 The aim of the present publication [End Page 1] is to take Roger's argument considerably further than Roger himself did, however, by showing not only that genetics has exercised an important influence on culture, but also that culture, and most specifically for our present purposes, that of the French-speaking world, has given literary, visual, and cinematic form not only to the history, but also to the known present and the imagined future of genetics. This special issue on the theme of "Genetics and French Culture" will aim to examine these twin proposals in a broad-ranging though necessarily non-exhaustive selection of articles treating subject matter dating from the late nineteenth century, the era in which modern genetic science was founded, to the present day.

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Figure 1.

Pierre Boaistuau, Histoires prodigieuses extraictes de plusieurs fameux auteurs, grecs & latins, sacrez & prophanes (Paris: Chez Charles Mace à l'enseigne de la Pyramide, 1575). Folio 14 recto, Wellcome Library, London.

The multiple influences of science on European literary culture in the post-Enlightenment period have been well documented. Allen Thiher argues that "much of modern literature has developed, especially since the eighteenth through the nineteenth century, as a response to the claims of science, specifically [End Page 2] to the claims of science to dictate what can be known with any degree of certainty," seeing this response as a "central feature of the French novel as it developed from Balzac to Proust."4 He elaborates this thesis in relation to scientific ideas on heredity in a chapter entitled "Zola's Collaborative Rivalry with Science." Inscribing the author and his work within this broader epistemological shift, Thiher's analysis sits alongside the works of numerous...


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