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John L. Rudolph, Section Editor

In Pursuit of the Gene: From Darwin to DNA, by James Schwartz. Harvard University
Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, 2008. xiii + 370 pp. ISBN 978-064-02670-4.
Science writer James Schwartz has written a history of genetics that constructs a story
that goes from Darwin to the International HapMap Project. His approach is to identify a
set of key characters and describe their life and work (including some classic papers and
experiments). The approach is intelligent because anyone who has lectured on genetics
(particularly to a nonmajor class) knows that the subject is one that is notoriously difcult
to teach. Focusing on particular individuals allows a human dimension to emerge, and by
looking at particular experiments or papers the author has the opportunity to zero in on
especially important concepts.
In Pursuit of the Gene provides good descriptions of many key moments in the history
of genetics. The book, however, suffers from a Whiggish framework that takes the present
as its terminus and attempts to reconstruct a path from the past to current positions. The
book purports to be a history of the idea of the gene, but it is not clear exactly what that
means or could mean. In a sense, the book is about the history of particulate genetics, that
is, the notion that hereditary traits are inherited as discrete units (as opposed to the idea
that hereditary material somehow blends). And while the history of particulate genetics is
a critical piece of the story of our understanding of heredity, the authors approach does
great violence to the historical record and reinforces simplistic notions of the nature of
sciencethe view of history of science as one long staircase of progress from ignorance to
Schwartzs history stresses the discovery and formulation of correct ideas, and he
continually reminds his readers of the erroneous theories and ideas of many of his
characters. But, ideas are correct or erroneous in particular contexts, and to castigate
a historical gure for not getting it right can cloud the historical picture more than it
illuminates. More important, for science educators who are interested in using history of
science to illustrate the nature of science, this presentist perspective masks the complex
process of science that is more than just discovering the ways things are. In narratives
such as Schwartzs, a small set of actors are identied, arranged in chronological order,
and a history is constructed. It is, however, as often as not, a history that misses much of
story, that stresses gures that had minimal impact, and that ignores or gives little attention
to the central gures who played key roles in the changing understanding of nature. As
often as not, even the individual vignettes are distorted so as to make the gures conform
to a narrative that is highly articial.
Schwartz provides well-written and carefully researched discussions of important geneticists. In particular, he has given considerable attention to Hermann Muller and Hugo
DeVries, often given minor roles in such histories. But, August Weismann, perhaps the
most important person in popularizing a particulate genetics, is related to a set of walk
on parts. Weissman was wrong about a lot of things. But, not the most important one: the
power of particulate genetics.


2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.



Science educators can make good use of James Schwartzs In Pursuit of the Gene. But,
they have to be careful and selective. Individual experiments and potted biographies can be
protably mined, but as a study of how the understanding of heredity developed, it needs
to be supplemented by more historically sensitive studies.
Department of History
Oregon State University
Corvallis, OR 97331
DOI 10.1002/sce.20317
Published online 8 September 2008 in Wiley InterScience (

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