1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · Events

One-day Workshop: 'Heredity in the Century of the Gene'

Workshop   30.11.1999






  1. EGenIS (ARC)
  • Barry Barnes
  • Jane Calvert
  • John Dupré
  • Christine Hauskeller
  • Massimo Mazzotti
  • Staffan Müller-Wille

MPI for the History of Science (ARC)

  • Christina Brandt
  • Didier Debaise
  • Igal Dotan
  • Bernd Gausemeier
  • Edna Suarez
  • Hans-Jörg Rheinberger

Other EGenIS staff

  • Adam Bostanci
  • Lenny Moss
  • Maureen O’Malley


  • Angelique Richardson (Univ. Exeter)
  • Helga Satzinger (Wellcome Trust Centre for History of Medicine, London)
  • Fern Elsdon-Baker (Univ. Brighton)

Event details

The ESRC Research Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis) at the University of Exeter and the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG), Berlin, are planning a joint international conference on "A Cultural History of Heredity IV: Genetics in the Twentieth Century". This workshop, scheduled to take place in Exeter in October 2006, is part of a series of workshops forming the backbone of a long-term research project on the cultural history of heredity. The project deals with the agricultural, technical, juridical, medical, and scientific practices in which the knowledge of heredity was materially entrenched and in which it gradually unfolded its effects in successive periods. The overall aim is to arrive at a better understanding of the genesis of today’s naturalistic concept of heredity (for more information on the project see http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/en/HEREDITY/index.html).

With the fourth international conference, the project is entering what has become known as “the century of the gene” (Fox-Keller). This catchphrase is questionable, of course, from a perspective of a cultural history of heredity, in as much as it gives priority to scientific conceptions of heredity. Nevertheless, Fox-Keller’s characterization of the twentieth century should be taken seriously, if only in order to de-construct it. Brushing aside the dominance of genetics over conceptions of heredity in the twentieth century as the result of mere social delusions, of mere ideology, will not help to make sense of how and why it gained this dominance, even if an apparent one only, in the first place.

Looking at the twentieth century as “the century of the gene” results in some historiographical challenges for a cultural history of heredity. With the twentieth century, hereditary thought crystallized in a regime of expert knowledge, genetics, where it gained its own momentum in specialized, paradigm-driven research programs. This results in two interrelated problems: First, it becomes difficult to historicize the knowledge of heredity in so far as it is produced by genetics, since the latter, as a natural science, endows it with the authority of nature. And second, the relationship between other knowledge regimes, like law, breeding, or medicine, that had been engaged traditionally in the production of the knowledge of heredity, and the regime of a scientific knowledge of heredity becomes a less immediate and symmetric one. Neither is genetic knowledge simply determined by concerns from the legal, economic, or political domain, nor does it simply translate into knowledge applicable within other cultural domains. And yet there is no doubt that genetics has pervaded modern society and changed the ways in which we think and practice inheritance profoundly. To see how, exactly, genetics is articulated with other knowledge regimes that deal with issues of inheritance, in terms of translations, boundary objects, and boundary practices, will be the challenge in turning to the cultural history of heredity of the twentieth century.

In order to discuss these issues in preparation of the conference planned for 2006, Egenis and the MPIWG are organizing a one-day workshop on the basis of funds for academic exchange received from the Academic Research Collaboration Programme (ARC) of the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The workshop aims to engage participants in an informal discussion. For this purpose, participants from Egenis and the MPIWG are asked, to give short presentations (15 min max.) in which they draw a “big picture” of the “century of the gene.” In this, we ask participants explicitly to go beyond their own speciality, and to be as speculative as they can. The central question, around we would like discussion to turn, can be phrased like this: What was it, if anything at all, that changed with the advent of the “gene”?


09:00-10:30 The Century of the Gene – Conceptual Dimensions (Christina Brandt, John Dupré, Staffan Müller-Wille)10:30-11:30 Coffee Break11:00-12:30 The Century of the Gene – Socio-Economic Dimensions (Jane Calvert, Edna Suarez)12:3--14:30 Lunch Break14:30-16:00 The Century of the Gene – Political Dimensions (Bernd Gausemeier, Christine Hauskeller, Massimo Mazzotti)16:00-16:30 Coffee Break16:30-18:00 The Century of the Gene – Epistemological Dimensions (Barry Barnes, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger)19:30 Dinner

Further details