- Thomas Carlyle, genetic Historian
Raymond Williams begins his introduction to Keywords by telling of his return to Cambridge following the end of World War II. He recounts meeting a friend he had known through various radical groups in the 1930’s. As they discussed their efforts to establish some continuity between the Cambridge they had known before the war and the Cambridge they were entering after the war, both Williams and his friend realized that much of the language they had had relied upon had shifted, and this shift had rendered much of their pre-war intellectual life unfamiliar.
This moment eventually sets Williams off to write Keywords. In the book, he focuses on a small number of words, which are common across several academic disciplines and in general use but whose meanings have evolved over the last few centuries as they have picked up specialized use and travelled into new contexts. As Williams notes:
One central feature of this area of interest was its vocabulary, which is significantly not the specialized vocabulary of a specialized discipline, though
it often overlaps with several of these, but a general vocabulary ranging from strong, difficult and persuasive words in everyday usage to words which,
beginning in particular specialized contexts, have become quite common in descriptions of wider areas of thought and experience. This, significantly, is the
vocabulary we share with others, often imperfectly, when we wish to discuss many of the central processes of our common fife.
Both the terms culture and genetics entered their respective disciplines and assumed specialized use in the same period of time, though the intervening years have pushed them far enough apart to set them in opposition to one another.
Culture is the original term Williams set out to trace, and it has the longest and most tortured history. This is no surprise and has been widely discussed, argued over, and generally made a point of contention within anthropology over the last hundred years.
However, the term genetic has an equally interesting history:
Genetic sometimes presents difficulties because it has two senses: a general meaning, which has become relatively uncommon in English though it is still common, for example, in French, and a specialized meaning, in a
particular branch of science, which has become well known. Genetic is an adjective from genesis, L, genesis, Gk – origin, creation, generation. It came into English in eC19, at first with the sense of a reference to origins, as in Carlyle: ‘genetic Histories’ (1831). It still had this main sense of origin in Darwin, where ‘genetic connection’ (1859) referred to a common origin of
species. But genetic carried also the sense of development, as in ‘genetic definitions’ (1837) where the defined subject was ‘considered as in the progress to be, as becoming’, and this was present again in ‘the genetic development of the parts of speech’ (1860). In 1897 genetics was defined in distinction from telics, to describe a process of development rather than a
fully developed or final state. Developments in eC20 biology showed the need for a new word. Bateson in 1905 referred to the ‘Study of Heredity’ and wrote: ‘no word in common use quite gives this meaning . . . and if it were desirable to coin one, “Genetics” might do’. From this use the now normal scientific description became established: ‘the physiology of heredity and
variation . . . genetics’ (Nature, 1906). But the older and more general sense of development was still active, as in ‘genetic psychology’ (1909), which we would now more often call developmental psychology, without reference to biological genetics. Moreover the earliest sense also survived, as in ‘genetic fallacy’ (1934) – the fallacy of explaining or discrediting something by reference to its original causes.
In normal English usage, genetic now refers to the facts of heredity and variation, in a biological context (genetic inheritance, genetic code, etc.). But in addition to the residual English uses genetic also often appears in
translations, especially from French, where the sense is normally of formation and development. Thus genetic structuralism (Goldmann) is distinguished from other forms of STRUCTURALISM (q.v.) by its
emphasis on the historical (not biological) formation and development of structures (forms of consciousness). It is probable that in this translated use it is often misunderstood, or becomes loosely associated with biological genetics.
See DEVELOPMENT, EVOLUTION, FORMALIST, HISTORY, STRUCTURAL
You can see where development diverged from the term genetic and came to be related to a more static view of an adult organism. This is certainly the case in biology today where a field like population genetics neither has, nor for the bulk of work done in the discipline, needs a theory of development.
Development has a long and winding history in biology, as Gould outlined in his 1977 Ontogeny and Phylogeny. This book is indirectly responsible for fields like evo-devo and DST, both of which pose a serious challenge to work stemming from the modern synthesis like population genetics. As an aside, Gould’s book is worth the time to read if only for the first few chapters in which he demonstrates how recapitulation theory entered social theory in the 19th century and continued deep into the 20th.
One could argue what someone like Cavalli-Sforza (and much more so his followers) practice is exactly history in Carlyle’s sense of “genetic Histories.” Their aim, as with Carlyle, and Galton after him, is to discover human origins as traced through the history of great men, or in this case, great genes. In this way genetics, through population genetics, has again taken up a concern with the telic.
It is a nice piece of anthropology trivia that the Bateson referenced in the quote above is none other than Gregory Bateson’s father.