There is no doubt that ?the gene” played a tremendous role in the history of the twentieth century life sciences. Yet Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger argue that there never was a universally accepted, stable definition of the gene. In this remarkable history, they not only show that the concept of the gene was in continual flux but also argue that this is a typical feature of historically influential and productive scientific concepts. In their view, the gene concept owed its position as a central organizing theme not to its rigorous definition but, rather, to the fact that it was progressively opened to instrumental manipulation. Highly relevant to contemporary thinking in genetics and genomics, this book will speak volumes to biologists, historians, and philosophers.
Few concepts played a more important role in twentieth-century life sciences than that of the gene. Yet at this moment, the field of genetics is undergoing radical conceptual transformation, and some scientists are questioning the very usefulness of the concept of the gene, arguing instead for more systemic perspectives.
The time could not be better, therefore, for Hans-Jörg Rheinberger and Staffan Müller-Wille's magisterial history of the concept of the gene. Though the gene has long been the central organizing theme of biology, both conceptually and as an object of study, Rheinberger and Müller-Wille conclude that we have never even had a universally accepted, stable definition of it. Rather, the concept has been in continual flux—a state that, they contend, is typical of historically important and productive scientific concepts. It is that very openness to change and manipulation, the authors argue, that made it so useful: its very mutability enabled it to be useful while the technologies and approaches used to study and theorize about it changed dramatically.