September 2012

Emma Kat Richardson


A Cultural History of Heredity by Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger

Have you ever started to read a page, flipped on to the next page, perhaps even finished an entire chapter, only to realize that you've absorbed nothing of what your eyes have just gazed over? Not a single word resonates, no ideas begin churning in your mind, your own distinctive reaction based on a lifetime of environmental stimuli registers absolutely no response to the text starring back at you. Now, have you ever done that with an entire book?

The above, while contextually harsh, is not necessarily meant to be an assessment of the quality of said work. In fact, some of the greatest literary pieces of all time have failed to conjure up anything short of unremarkable indifference on my part. Nor is such a statement of my own levels of comprehension and intelligence, or that of anyone else who has experienced the afore-described phenomen-not. (See: every human brain ever, since the dawn of putting ideas onto papyrus.) The point is that each and every one of us is the product of a consciousness attuned to the evolutionary marriage of instinct and experience. Under this definition, an incontrovertibly authoritative tome like The Fountainhead can be interpreted as an engaging narrative on the way things ought to be by one reader and a multi-hundred-page sleeping pill by another. (To say nothing of those who might accurately absorb Ayn Rand's knife-in-hand prose and react with horror instead of yawns.) We are all the outcomes of our environment as much as we are the output of our heritage, biologically speaking. Who we are is where we come from, and there can be no question that our lives would prove starkly unrecognizable if not for the coincidental clash of systemic factors that have come together and produced each being in his or her own declared existence.

Such is the central thesis of Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger's academic work, A Cultural History of Heredity. Inarguably well researched and in possession of the kind of knowledgeable depth only found in the realm of expertise, the work is an exhaustive attempt to categorize humankind's lengthy and symbiotic relationship with the concept of heredity. It goes without saying that heredity is a trope almost as old as economics. Indeed, the two are often interrelated, with transfers of possession being the result of heredity and heredity influencing decisions made on familial wealth distribution. As much in feudal times as in now, intangible things like titles could be inherited alongside material wealth like lands and currency, with the rules of inheritance dictated by strict guidelines surrounding legitimacy of heirs and custom social practices carried on through generations. Long before the science of heredity was revealed to avid researchers of more contemporary eras, the notion of inheritance was very much a natural and widely accepted exercise in perpetuating the liveliness of society.

And then came the genes. Or, rather, the discovery of the building blocks of terrestrial life, or why orange cats begat other orange cats and human children have the repetitive tendency to look like their parents. (Or fail to resemble the man listed as the father on the birth certificate, as the case may warrant. If only medieval dukes had had access to such knowledge, perhaps the less-scientific question of property inheritance could have been cleared up more easily.) It is above reproach to state that our DNA plays an integral role in who we are, just as the surroundings in which we were reared offers undeniable persuasion over the types of personalities we grow to embody.

Throughout the course of the book, Müller-Wille and Rheinberger and explore the still-evolving world of cultural and physical heredity, paying particular attention to various scientific achievements that have galvanized the way in which we view the composition of existing life. Darwin, Foucault, and, of course, Dolly the cloned sheep are all cited with equal reverence, and it would be impossible to accuse the authors of not having done their homework, just as proving the son of the king might not, in fact, be the true heir to the crown might have been way back in the days of yore. While fewer than 300 pages in length, the text manages to examine nearly every imaginable aspect of what has long given the inheritance concept cultural weight and stamina, and would probably prove an invaluable resource for the modern student of heredity science and history.

That said, as a casual reader with a longstanding interest in heredity as a social construct, I found myself somehow simultaneously over and underwhelmed by the presentation of what must have been years and years' worth of meticulous study. As you might expect, the prose presentation is exceedingly dry, more in line with the factual than the fanciful, and it seems clear from the introduction on outward that Müller-Wille and Rheinberger's core audience is found within the space of a university lecture hall, not lying on the couch, sipping a cool afternoon beer while browsing through a riveting read. This is not to say that I had expected the later scenario while being disappointingly delivered of the former. Quite the contrary, given the book's inherent nature and description, I had hoped to be shown a more relatable and perceptible study, something that could provoke non-obvious understanding of an unfamiliar subject matter while sparking an interest in uncovering more to this story than what lies between these particular pages. I suppose, given the presence of "cultural history" in the title, I would have liked to have read more about the evolution of how we inherit as opposed to the cold scientific undertakings of what makes us us.

All told, I read through important passages of A Cultural History of Heredity a number of times but failed to gain any riveting insight into who I am, who we are, where we're going, where we're coming from. But my own individual experience, of course, shapes how I ascertain new information, just as your own individual experience factors in to your reading of the same set of sentences. My understanding of something may be wholly different from yours, though we share a biological history as members of the human race. We are the same and we are the opposite. And perhaps, really, that's the point meant to be explored here after all.

A Cultural History of Heredity by Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger
University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 978-0226545707
288 pages