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  • Heredity Explored: Between Public Domain and Experimental Science, 1850–1930 ed. by Staffan Müller-Wille and Christina Brandt
  • Alexandra Minna Stern
Staffan Müller-Wille and Christina Brandt, eds. Heredity Explored: Between Public Domain and Experimental Science, 1850–1930. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016. viii + 472 pp. Ill. $49.00 (978-0-262-03443-2).

The editors of this weighty volume have assembled a stellar international ensemble of historians to explore salient facets of heredity and their intersecting scientific, social, political, and cultural valences from 1850 to 1930. The second installment in a series devoted to tracing the genealogies of heredity over a modern era that begins in the 1500s, this book offers compelling frameworks and innovative scholarship to better understand an eight-decade period that was foundational to the emergence of classical genetics, cellular biology, and eugenics movements around the globe. This volume is neither comprehensive nor disciplinarily uniform; rather, it includes distinct perspectives that "show that a history of heredity includes much more than the history of genetics, and that knowledge of heredity was always more than the knowledge formulated as Mendelism" (p. 1). [End Page 667]

Seventeen chapters are divided into five parts, organized by conceptual frames including kinship and population, evolution and reproduction, agro-industrial contexts, medical contexts, and Mendelism. Contributors explore how heredity influenced and interacted with public discourse and policy and how hereditarian principles were applied in specific contexts and using particular model organisms. This volume clearly articulates a strong interest in disrupting unilinear discovery narratives of Mendelism that have become too comfortably accepted by historians of science and medicine.

A brief review of several exemplary chapters illustrates this volume's original research. In one chapter, Luis Campos and Alexander von Schwerin situate Mendelism in a broader constellation of research on inheritance, and particularly, mutation, that emerged in the early twentieth century. Pivoting away from the centrality of the "gene," they focus on Erwin Baur and Albert Francis Blakeslee who tested Hugo de Vries's mutation theory by observing hereditary patterns in plants (jimsonweed and the snapdragon), and then posited the importance of chromosomes and of large-scale techniques of experimental agricultural genetics. Notably, Baur and Blakeslee helped pave the way for a decidedly technological approach to the induction of mutations in model organisms that adumbrated subsequent biological and biomedical research.

Jean-Paul Gaudillière and Ilana Löwy perceptively highlight the absence of Mendelism in medicine in the early 1900s, when Mendelian theories of human inheritance and medical understandings of human pathology often were incommensurate. Only in rare instances, such as familial adenomatous polyposis and phenylketonuria, was Mendelization successful. Most physicians viewed human pathologies as intrinsically complex and multifactorial, and embraced a model of "vertical transmission" that did not allow for Mendelian factors. Furthermore, the wide gap between clinical practice and scientific experimentation militated against the kind of evidence-based medicine taken for granted today.

Unidirectional narratives of the intertwined rise of racial hygiene and Jewish persecution are troubled by Veronika Lipphardt's insightful essay, which illustrates how a subset of Jewish biologists engaged visibly in debates about the biological worth of the Jewish "race" through lenses of racial and evolutionary progress, even emancipation. She smartly notes "one should not project today's knowledge about the Holocaust back into pre-1933 Germany but instead consider those multiple future outcomes that seemed possible to contemporaries" (p. 128). This keen reminder—to side-shadow, not back-shadow, histories of eugenics and genetics—can help scholars understand perplexing phenomena such as African American eugenics in the United States. In his essay on the overlooked but pivotal role of statistics, enumeration, and bureaucracy, above all in asylums and mental institutions, Theodore Porter recenters U.S. and British histories of eugenics around a distinct kind of serialization and biopolitical efficiency. He traces methods, theories, and material practices within the institutions themselves, underscoring the relevance of STS approaches to analyzing classificatory systems that mattered to early twentieth-century eugenicists and social reformers. [End Page 668]

The volume contains a wealth of insights into national and comparative histories of heredity, that the contributors show, were complex, multilayered, and sometimes counterintuitive. As is typical of anthologies, overarching arguments...


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