Hybrid Vigour? Genes, Genomics, and History
© ESRC Genomics Network 2008
Published: 15 April 2008
Is the gene 'special' for historians? What effects, if any, has the notion of the 'gene' had on our understanding of history? Certainly, there is a widespread public and professional perception that genetics and history are or should be in dialogue with each other in some way. But historians and geneticists view history and genetics very differently - and assume very different relationships between them. And public perceptions of genes, genetics, genomics, and indeed the nature and meanings of 'history' differ yet again. Here, in looking at the meaning, and the implications - the significance - of the gene (and its corollary scientific disciplines and approaches) specifically to historians, I will focus on two aspects of the discourse. First, I will examine the ways in which historians have thus far approached genes and genetics, and the impact such studies have had on the field. There is considerable overlap between the subject matter of genetics/genomics and many of the most widely used analytic categories of contemporary historiography - race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, (dis)ability, among others. Yet the impact of genetics and genomics on society has been studied principally by anthropologists, sociologists and ethicists.2 Only two historical sub-disciplines have engaged with the rise of genetics to any significant degree: the histories of science and of medicine. What does this indicate or suggest? Second, I will explore the impact of the 'gene' and genetic understandings (of, for example, the body, health, disease, identity, the family, and evolution) on public conceptions of history itself.