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Shaping science with the past : textbooks, history, and the disciplining of genetics



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Skopek, Jeffrey M. 


Science is generally not thought of as being deeply historiographical. Although it is clear that scientists frequently write about history in their work — that, for example, they identify the significance of an advance by situating it historically, or refer to a historic source of authority in order to add legitimacy to a position — it is often supposed that the historical claims of scientists are incidental to the scientific. This thesis contests basic assumptions of this view. In a study of the textbooks of twentieth century Anglo-American genetics — of a place where the canon of a science is consolidated, as the heterogeneous approaches and controversies of its practice are rendered unified for its reproduction — I develop a novel taxonomy of the forms in which history can be written, and of the scientific functions that they can serve. Progressing from an analysis of narrative historical accounts, to latent and embedded formulations of the past, I demonstrate the ways in which geneticists used history-writing in the disciplining of the foundations, future practitioners, conceptual order, and boundaries of their science.

After an introductory chapter identifying some of the ways in which the textbooks and historical accounts of a science may be contributory, rather than intellectually external and temporally subsequent, to its formation and development, I advance the central argument of this thesis in four chapters. Each examines a different form of historywriting. In the first, I explore the disciplining of the foundations of genetics, with a study of the explicit, narrative histories of hereditary science that were written in three important first-generation genetics textbooks. Identifying radical differences in their accounts of the same nineteenth-century figures, experiments and theories, I argue that these different ways of consolidating history were connected to fundamentally different ideas of the conceptual foundations of the science, and that they were used to advance divergent visions of the science’s future. I then look at the historical case-based and problem-solving method of teaching that was developed in the 1920s-1940s to convey the science of genetics. I argue that this method created 'virtual historical environments' that allowed students to learn and practice not only the principles that were studied by geneticists and were explicitly taught as rules in the text, but also the tacit skills needed to follow, find, and understand these rules. Here, history was used in the disciplining of the mind of the student. In the third chapter, I look at the 'standard historical approach' to teaching in the 1930s-1950s, exploring the establishment of this approach, the functions and consequences of literary devices on which it relied, and the ways in which the meaning of facts and theories were shaped within it. My central contention is that a notion of history was constitutive of the organizational logic, narrative structure, and inner rationality of textbook genetics, thereby performing a powerful function in the disciplining of the conceptual order of the science. The fourth chapter explores the sense of history embodied in the use of the concept of 'classical genetics' in textbooks of the 1960s-1970s. Tracing the semantic development of 'classical' from its first uses in the 1920s, I argue that this term was a politically powerful concept in the language of geneticists: at first used to define and establish sources of scientific authority, it was subsequently developed in arguments about the philosophical and ideological character of genetics, and eventually served to establish the disciplinary identity and boundaries of the science. By differentiating these various uses of 'classical', I show that the disciplinary power of this term — which is derived from the authority of history — relied on the effacement of its historicity and the situations in which it was created and deployed. With this thesis, I push the boundaries on common conceptions of what is involved in, and what should be counted as, the 'history' and 'writing' of history-writing. Advancing a novel taxonomy of the forms in which the historical can appear, I provide a starting point for further historiographical research on the subtle yet powerful ways in which the historicity of our past can make claims upon us.






Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge