The History of the World is But the Biography of Great Genes

– 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.



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.

3 thoughts on “The History of the World is But the Biography of Great Genes

  1. Can you explain exactly how evo-devo has posed a “serious challenge” to population genetics? I’m not seeing it. Development (and associated fields like DST) has traditionally been ignored by most population genetic models, but that is the very essence of modeling: to simplify. Such an exclusion has never been a “challenge,” only a purposeful omission that one makes when studying a complex phenomenon like population genetics (or development). One could just as easily say that population genetic models have posed a “serious challenge” for development, but again, I’m not sure what that statement even means.

    Genes produce phenotypes through development (with lots of input from extrinsic and intrinsic factors) and there have been tons of population genetic models of development. You make it sound like they are opposed when in fact they are actually merging.

  2. Your questions elides the difference in meaning between challenge and omission. You seem to imply that simply omitting something from a model means it is not a challenge to that model. This is true in a narrow sense, but it misses the larger point that the model should reflect more than its own internal logic.

    This is also a question of what kind of answer you are seeking. For some work in population genetics a theory of development is inconsequential, but not for other areas.

    Ultimately, the philosophical question hanging over all fields derived from the modern synthesis is the same has it has always been: What explains the creation of novel forms?

    This question was posed 100 years ago in differing contexts by Bergson, Thompson and Boas among others, and to the extent that evo-devo raises the question, it is a challenge to the modern synthesis.

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