The Century of the Gene / Edition 1

Paperback (Print)
Buy New
Buy New from BN.com
$17.90
Buy Used
Buy Used from BN.com
$15.00
(Save 41%)
Item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging.
Condition: Used – Good details
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $2.14
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 91%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (18) from $2.14   
  • New (6) from $10.00   
  • Used (12) from $2.14   

Overview

In a book that promises to change the way we think and talk about genes and genetic determinism, Evelyn Fox Keller, one of our most gifted historians and philosophers of science, provides a powerful, profound analysis of the achievements of genetics and molecular biology in the twentieth century, the century of the gene. Not just a chronicle of biology’s progress from gene to genome in one hundred years, The Century of the Gene also calls our attention to the surprising ways these advances challenge the familiar picture of the gene most of us still entertain.
Keller shows us that the very successes that have stirred our imagination have also radically undermined the primacy of the gene—word and object—as the core explanatory concept of heredity and development. She argues that we need a new vocabulary that includes concepts such as robustness, fidelity, and evolvability. But more than a new vocabulary, a new awareness is absolutely crucial: that understanding the components of a system (be they individual genes, proteins, or even molecules) may tell us little about the interactions among these components.
With the Human Genome Project nearing its first and most publicized goal, biologists are coming to realize that they have reached not the end of biology but the beginning of a new era. Indeed, Keller predicts that in the new century we will witness another Cambrian era, this time in new forms of biological thought rather than in new forms of biological life.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Booklist

Keller traces the evolution of genetic science over the course of the twentieth century, during which Gregor Mendel's theories of inheritance were rediscovered, the structure of DNA revealed, and the human genome mapped—world-changing achievements that have taken our understanding of genetics far beyond the level at which the now too-simple word gene was coined.
— Donna Seaman

Globe and Mail

Sometimes, with great luck, you happen on a book that is wondrous in its ability to take a topic apart and explain it lucidly. Sometimes, the joy is to be found in the way an author is able to put those pieces back together. And sometimes, it is the elegance both of analysis and synthesis that makes a book truly great. The Century of the Gene, by Evelyn Fox Keller, reaches that level and then vaults past it into the category of rare volumes that are unforgettable. This is the sort of book that, once found, can never be relinquished. The breadth of intellect is so strong, the importance of the subject so acute, the language so beautifully wrought, that you find yourself drawn to read it again and again, only to find a new dimension each time… In fact—and this is one of the most intense pleasures of the book—Fox Keller's explanation of how the thinking about the gene has evolved over the past century is both as simple and as complex as the gene itself. Her topic is also her metaphor.
— Alanna Mitchell

Commonweal

The Century of the Gene is unusual among popular histories of science in that it largely avoids both technical minutiae and sociological or historical background. Rather, it is almost exclusively a history of ideas, even a history of just one idea—the concept of the gene. Keller's aim, one that she achieves admirably, is to give readers just enough information about discoveries in molecular biology so that they can appreciate the consequence of those discoveries for our understanding of what genes are.
— Austin L. Hughes

Rain Taxi
The very word 'gene' symbolizes our self-obsessed culture. All we do, know, learn, and sacrifice is somehow explained away by appealing to this tiny and elusive biological structure. Yet according to at least one scientist, it's time for us to shift our focus and branch out to other possible, and perhaps more suitable, interpretations of our natures. In The Century of the Gene, Evelyn Fox Keller urges the genomic society to break free of the linguistic (and therefore conceptual) restraints and the historical baggage inherent in the use of the term 'gene'—a break she sees as imperative and, ultimately, inevitable.
American Scientist

[Keller writes] with a peculiar, elegant blend of linguistic skill, historical reflection, conceptual analysis and synthetic outlook, and with the generously encompassing gesture of someone who participated in and followed the developments of molecular biology and genetics over several decades… Keller sees her book as a plea for scientific and political realism. Indeed it is. But it is more than just that. It engages historians, philosophers, scientists and the educated lay public alike in a discussion that self-consciously resists the temptation of polemics…about the conceptual and experimental developments in life sciences during the course of the twentieth century.
— Hans-Jorg Rheinberger

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
[In] a lucid analysis of the mind-boggling advances in genetics and molecular biology in the twentieth century, Keller says it's time to change the way we think about the gene.
New York Review of Books

[Keller] is at the same time enthusiastic about the light that has been shed on the nature of life and critical of the oversimplifications that she feels have been made… She is well qualified to draw [her conclusions]. She has an admirable grasp of recent research in molecular genetics…and has read widely in the history of genetics… She has also thought hard about both the history and the current state of the subject… We need Keller's voice.
— John Maynard Smith

Radcliffe Quarterly

Once again, with the prescience her readers have come to expect from her, Evelyn Fox Keller is ahead of the curve in identifying and illuminating new questions for our attention… [Keller] addresses myths and misunderstandings that surround the concept of a gene… [Her] informed and entertaining volume takes the reader on a quick historical tour through the gestation and birth of molecular genetics and then, with a few helpful illustrations, into current perceptions of gene structure and function in sufficient detail to explain her critical arguments… Her fascinating tale should raise your interest in the biological mysteries that remain.
— Cecily Cannan Selby

Tech Directions

For anyone fascinated by biology, the technology used to explore it, and the medical promises implicit in the information contained within our genetic material, Keller's overview makes for clear, engaging, and exciting reading.
— Tom Bowden

New Genetics and Society

[This] book opens up exciting possibilities of new ways of thinking about biological organization, which are not overshadowed by traditional language or by 'historical baggage'… Evelyn Fox Keller has put down a marker in this important book. The time has come for us to take on a richer understanding of genetics and with it some new language and concepts.
— Sue Weldon

British Journal for the History of Science

Evelyn Fox Keller's The Century of the Gene is a clear, concise and challenging contribution to our understanding of the history of genetics and of modern biology more generally. There can be no doubt that Keller's analysis of 'gene talk,' that is, her analysis of the variety of contexts and ways in which biologists have deployed the word 'gene', is more than timely.
— Paolo Palladino

Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings

The Century of the Gene, by Evelyn Fox Keller, not only provides an insightful overview of the role of a gene in the creation of an organism but also traces the history of our perception of the gene's role in that creation… Keller provides several concise figures that allow a person with minimal knowledge of molecular biology to understand the basics of what a gene is and how it functions within the body. This book also captures past and present thought from critical scientists and philosophers who have contributed to our current understanding of molecular biology… [The] overall outlook provides a new understanding of the dynamics of gene regulation and predicts that a new era in which we can understand how to control our own evolution is approaching. From a research perspective, we hope to be able to use this knowledge to help correct medical disorders. However, from a moral and religious perspective, many new boundaries are being crossed. Read this book. You will challenge yourself in trying to figure out what the future will be.
— Dr. John J. Nemunaitis

Heredity

Although brief, this book is packed with good things. The historical analysis is unfailingly interesting, the scientific reportage lucid. Best of all, perhaps, is the sheer excitement the book communicates about the state of genetics and the need to get that state into proper focus, using all the intellectual resources going… I am impressed by the diversity of gene concepts within what Keller sees…as a single concept… Her own contribution to the case for conceptual unity is an important one.
— Gregory Radick

Bulletin of the History of Medicine

The notes…are detailed and useful… Her book is a thought-provoking review of the history and philosophy of genetics and genomics.
— Victor A. McKusick

Günter P. Wagner
In this elegantly written book, Evelyn Fox Keller tells the fascinating story of how the heuristic power of genetic experimentation interacts with the narrative power of the word 'gene.' Both are built on and reinforce each other. I never saw an equally convincing and well informed narrative on how language mediates the interaction between experimental research and its social context.
Dorothy Nelkin
Genes have captured the scientific and popular imagination. But in The Century of the Gene, Evelyn Fox Keller provides us with a powerful analysis of the limits of the gene as an explanatory concept. Indeed, the success of molecular biology and greater understanding of biological development have exposed the wide gap between genetic information and biological meaning, undermining the very concept of the gene. Yet gene talk with all its historical baggage persists in shaping both science and popular perceptions. Keller argues convincingly for a new language, for new concepts that will enable us to deal with the real complexity of biological organization. This is a critically important book to be very widely read.
Richard Lewontin
Evelyn Keller has the disturbing ability to make you think again from scratch about things you thought you had already understood. It is a long time since I have thought so hard about fundamental problems in genetics as I did when reading The Century of the Gene.
John Bonner
In The Century of the Gene, Evelyn Keller gathers together her considerable skills as a mathematician, physicist, historian and philosopher and applies them to the central problem of the last 100 years of biology, namely the relation of the genes to the building of an organism. The scholarship is masterly, not only because of her wide reading of the literature, but her deep, penetrating understanding of what she reads. To cap it all she writes clearly and elegantly so that the book is a pleasure to read. This is a conspicuously intelligent book.
Booklist - Ray Olson
Top-drawer science reading.
Globe and Mail - Martin Levin
Among the many books on cloning and genetic therapy, The Century of the Gene, an overview of current research and thought by philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller, seems especially promising.
Commonweal - Austin L. Hughes
The Century of the Gene is unusual among popular histories of science in that it largely avoids both technical minutiae and sociological or historical background. Rather, it is almost exclusively a history of ideas, even a history of just one idea—the concept of the gene. Keller's aim, one that she achieves admirably, is to give readers just enough information about discoveries in molecular biology so that they can appreciate the consequence of those discoveries for our understanding of what genes are.
Booklist - Donna Seaman
Keller traces the evolution of genetic science over the course of the twentieth century, during which Gregor Mendel's theories of inheritance were rediscovered, the structure of DNA revealed, and the human genome mapped—world-changing achievements that have taken our understanding of genetics far beyond the level at which the now too-simple word gene was coined.
Globe and Mail - Alanna Mitchell
Sometimes, with great luck, you happen on a book that is wondrous in its ability to take a topic apart and explain it lucidly. Sometimes, the joy is to be found in the way an author is able to put those pieces back together. And sometimes, it is the elegance both of analysis and synthesis that makes a book truly great. The Century of the Gene, by Evelyn Fox Keller, reaches that level and then vaults past it into the category of rare volumes that are unforgettable. This is the sort of book that, once found, can never be relinquished. The breadth of intellect is so strong, the importance of the subject so acute, the language so beautifully wrought, that you find yourself drawn to read it again and again, only to find a new dimension each time… In fact—and this is one of the most intense pleasures of the book—Fox Keller's explanation of how the thinking about the gene has evolved over the past century is both as simple and as complex as the gene itself. Her topic is also her metaphor.
American Scientist - Hans-Jorg Rheinberger
[Keller writes] with a peculiar, elegant blend of linguistic skill, historical reflection, conceptual analysis and synthetic outlook, and with the generously encompassing gesture of someone who participated in and followed the developments of molecular biology and genetics over several decades… Keller sees her book as a plea for scientific and political realism. Indeed it is. But it is more than just that. It engages historians, philosophers, scientists and the educated lay public alike in a discussion that self-consciously resists the temptation of polemics…about the conceptual and experimental developments in life sciences during the course of the twentieth century.
New York Review of Books - John Maynard Smith
[Keller] is at the same time enthusiastic about the light that has been shed on the nature of life and critical of the oversimplifications that she feels have been made… She is well qualified to draw [her conclusions]. She has an admirable grasp of recent research in molecular genetics…and has read widely in the history of genetics… She has also thought hard about both the history and the current state of the subject… We need Keller's voice.
Radcliffe Quarterly - Cecily Cannan Selby
Once again, with the prescience her readers have come to expect from her, Evelyn Fox Keller is ahead of the curve in identifying and illuminating new questions for our attention… [Keller] addresses myths and misunderstandings that surround the concept of a gene… [Her] informed and entertaining volume takes the reader on a quick historical tour through the gestation and birth of molecular genetics and then, with a few helpful illustrations, into current perceptions of gene structure and function in sufficient detail to explain her critical arguments… Her fascinating tale should raise your interest in the biological mysteries that remain.
Tech Directions - Tom Bowden
For anyone fascinated by biology, the technology used to explore it, and the medical promises implicit in the information contained within our genetic material, Keller's overview makes for clear, engaging, and exciting reading.
New Genetics and Society - Sue Weldon
[This] book opens up exciting possibilities of new ways of thinking about biological organization, which are not overshadowed by traditional language or by 'historical baggage'… Evelyn Fox Keller has put down a marker in this important book. The time has come for us to take on a richer understanding of genetics and with it some new language and concepts.
British Journal for the History of Science - Paolo Palladino
Evelyn Fox Keller's The Century of the Gene is a clear, concise and challenging contribution to our understanding of the history of genetics and of modern biology more generally. There can be no doubt that Keller's analysis of 'gene talk,' that is, her analysis of the variety of contexts and ways in which biologists have deployed the word 'gene', is more than timely.
Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings - Dr. John J. Nemunaitis
The Century of the Gene, by Evelyn Fox Keller, not only provides an insightful overview of the role of a gene in the creation of an organism but also traces the history of our perception of the gene's role in that creation… Keller provides several concise figures that allow a person with minimal knowledge of molecular biology to understand the basics of what a gene is and how it functions within the body. This book also captures past and present thought from critical scientists and philosophers who have contributed to our current understanding of molecular biology… [The] overall outlook provides a new understanding of the dynamics of gene regulation and predicts that a new era in which we can understand how to control our own evolution is approaching. From a research perspective, we hope to be able to use this knowledge to help correct medical disorders. However, from a moral and religious perspective, many new boundaries are being crossed. Read this book. You will challenge yourself in trying to figure out what the future will be.
Heredity - Gregory Radick
Although brief, this book is packed with good things. The historical analysis is unfailingly interesting, the scientific reportage lucid. Best of all, perhaps, is the sheer excitement the book communicates about the state of genetics and the need to get that state into proper focus, using all the intellectual resources going… I am impressed by the diversity of gene concepts within what Keller sees…as a single concept… Her own contribution to the case for conceptual unity is an important one.
Bulletin of the History of Medicine - Victor A. McKusick
The notes…are detailed and useful… Her book is a thought-provoking review of the history and philosophy of genetics and genomics.
Commonweal
The Century of the Gene is unusual among popular histories of science in that it largely avoids both technical minutiae and sociological or historical background. Rather, it is almost exclusively a history of ideas, even a history of just one idea--the concept of the gene. Keller's aim, one that she achieves admirably, is to give readers just enough information about discoveries in molecular biology so that they can appreciate the consequence of those discoveries for our understanding of what genes are.
— Austin L. Hughes
Booklist
Keller traces the evolution of genetic science over the course of the twentieth century, during which Gregor Mendel's theories of inheritance were rediscovered, the structure of DNA revealed, and the human genome mapped--world-changing achievements that have taken our understanding of genetics far beyond the level at which the now too-simple word gene was coined.
— Donna Seaman
American Scientist
[Keller writes] with a peculiar, elegant blend of linguistic skill, historical reflection, conceptual analysis and synthetic outlook, and with the generously encompassing gesture of someone who participated in and followed the developments of molecular biology and genetics over several decades...Keller sees her book as a plea for scientific and political realism. Indeed it is. But it is more than just that. It engages historians, philosophers, scientists and the educated lay public alike in a discussion that self-consciously resists the temptation of polemics...about the conceptual and experimental developments in life sciences during the course of the twentieth century.
— Hans-Jorg Rheinberger
Globe and Mail
Sometimes, with great luck, you happen on a book that is wondrous in its ability to take a topic apart and explain it lucidly. Sometimes, the joy is to be found in the way an author is able to put those pieces back together. And sometimes, it is the elegance both of analysis and synthesis that makes a book truly great. The Century of the Gene, by Evelyn Fox Keller, reaches that level and then vaults past it into the category of rare volumes that are unforgettable. This is the sort of book that, once found, can never be relinquished. The breadth of intellect is so strong, the importance of the subject so acute, the language so beautifully wrought, that you find yourself drawn to read it again and again, only to find a new dimension each time...In fact--and this is one of the most intense pleasures of the book--Fox Keller's explanation of how the thinking about the gene has evolved over the past century is both as simple and as complex as the gene itself. Her topic is also her metaphor.
— Alanna Mitchell
New York Review of Books
[Keller] is at the same time enthusiastic about the light that has been shed on the nature of life and critical of the oversimplifications that she feels have been made...She is well qualified to draw [her conclusions]. She has an admirable grasp of recent research in molecular genetics...and has read widely in the history of genetics...She has also thought hard about both the history and the current state of the subject...We need Keller's voice.
— John Maynard Smith
Rain Taxi
The very word 'gene' symbolizes our self-obsessed culture. All we do, know, learn, and sacrifice is somehow explained away by appealing to this tiny and elusive biological structure. Yet according to at least one scientist, it's time for us to shift our focus and branch out to other possible, and perhaps more suitable, interpretations of our natures. In The Century of the Gene, Evelyn Fox Keller urges the genomic society to break free of the linguistic (and therefore conceptual) restraints and the historical baggage inherent in the use of the term 'gene'--a break she sees as imperative and, ultimately, inevitable.
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
The notes…are detailed and useful…Her book is a thought-provoking review of the history and philosophy of genetics and genomics.
— Victor A. McKusick
Heredity
Although brief, this book is packed with good things. The historical analysis is unfailingly interesting, the scientific reportage lucid. Best of all, perhaps, is the sheer excitement the book communicates about the state of genetics and the need to get that state into proper focus, using all the intellectual resources going…I am impressed by the diversity of gene concepts within what Keller sees…as a single concept…Her own contribution to the case for conceptual unity is an important one.
— Gregory Radick
British Journal for the History of Science
Evelyn Fox Keller's The Century of the Gene is a clear, concise and challenging contribution to our understanding of the history of genetics and of modern biology more generally. There can be no doubt that Keller's analysis of "gene talk," that is, her analysis of the variety of contexts and ways in which biologists have deployed the word "gene", is more than timely.
— Paolo Palladino
Radcliffe Quarterly
Once again, with the prescience her readers have come to expect from her, Evelyn Fox Keller is ahead of the curve in identifying and illuminating new questions for our attention...[Keller] addresses myths and misunderstandings that surround the concept of a gene...[Her] informed and entertaining volume takes the reader on a quick historical tour through the gestation and birth of molecular genetics and then, with a few helpful illustrations, into current perceptions of gene structure and function in sufficient detail to explain her critical arguments...Her fascinating tale should raise your interest in the biological mysteries that remain.
— Cecily Cannan Selby
Tech Directions
For anyone fascinated by biology, the technology used to explore it, and the medical promises implicit in the information contained within our genetic material, Keller's overview makes for clear, engaging, and exciting reading.
— Tom Bowden
New Genetics and Society
[This] book opens up exciting possibilities of new ways of thinking about biological organization, which are not overshadowed by traditional language or by "historical baggage"...Evelyn Fox Keller has put down a marker in this important book. The time has come for us to take on a richer understanding of genetics and with it some new language and concepts.
— Sue Weldon
Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings
The Century of the Gene, by Evelyn Fox Keller, not only provides an insightful overview of the role of a gene in the creation of an organism but also traces the history of our perception of the gene's role in that creation…Keller provides several concise figures that allow a person with minimal knowledge of molecular biology to understand the basics of what a gene is and how it functions within the body. This book also captures past and present thought from critical scientists and philosophers who have contributed to our current understanding of molecular biology…[The] overall outlook provides a new understanding of the dynamics of gene regulation and predicts that a new era in which we can understand how to control our own evolution is approaching. From a research perspective, we hope to be able to use this knowledge to help correct medical disorders. However, from a moral and religious perspective, many new boundaries are being crossed. Read this book. You will challenge yourself in trying to figure out what the future will be.
— Dr. John J. Nemunaitis
Martin Levin
Among the many books on cloning and genetic therapy, The Century of the Gene, an overview of current research and thought by philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller, seems especially promising.
Tom Bowden
For anyone fascinated by biology, the technology used to explore it, and the medical promises implicit in the information contained within our genetic material, Keller's overview makes for clear, engaging, and exciting reading.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
[In] a lucid analysis of the mind-boggling advances in genetics and molecular biology in the twentieth century, Keller says it's time to change the way we think about the gene.
John Maynard Smith
[Keller] is at the same time enthusiastic about the light that has been shed on the nature of life and critical of the oversimplifications that she feels have been made...She is well qualified to draw [her conclusions]. She has an admirable grasp of recent research in molecular genetics...and has read widely in the history of genetics...She has also thought hard about both the history and the current state of the subject...We need Keller's voice.
Rain Taxi
The very word 'gene' symbolizes our self-obsessed culture. All we do, know, learn, and sacrifice is somehow explained away by appealing to this tiny and elusive biological structure. Yet according to at least one scientist, it's time for us to shift our focus and branch out to other possible, and perhaps more suitable, interpretations of our natures. In The Century of the Gene, Evelyn Fox Keller urges the genomic society to break free of the linguistic (and therefore conceptual restraints and the historical baggage inherent in the use of the term 'gene'—a break she sees as imperative and, ultimately, inevitable.
Austin L. Hughes
The Century of the Gene is unusual among popular histories of science in that it largely avoids both technical minutiae and sociological or historical background. Rather, it is almost exclusively a history of ideas, even a history of just one idea—the concept of the gene. Keller's aim, one that she achieves admirably, is to give readers just enough information about discoveries in molecular biology so that they can appreciate the consequence of those discoveries for our understanding of what genes are.
Alanna Mitchell
Sometimes, with great luck, you happen on a book that is wondrous in its ability to take a topic apart and explain it lucidly. Sometimes, the joy is to be found in the way an author is able to put those pieces back together. And sometimes, it is the elegance both of analysis and synthesis that makes a book truly great. The Century of the Gene, by Evelyn Fox Keller, reaches that level and then vaults past it into the category of rare volumes that are unforgettable. This is the sort of book that, once found, can never be relinquished. The breadth of intellect is so strong, the importance of the subject so acute, the language so beautifully wrought, that you find yourself drawn to read it again and again, only to find a new dimension each time...In fact—and this is one of the most intense pleasures of the book—Fox Keller's explanation of how the thinking about the gene has evolved over the past century is both as simple and as complex as the gene itself. Her topic is also her metaphor.
Hans-Jorg Rheinbeger
[Keller writes] with a peculiar, elegant blend of linguistic skill, historical reflection, conceptual analysis and synthetic outlook, and with the generously encompassing gesture of someone who participated in and followed the developments of molecular biology and genetics over several decades...Keller sees her book as a plea for scientific and political realism. Indeed it is. But it is more than just that. It engages historians, philosophers, scientists and the educated lay public alike I a discussion that self-consciously resists the temptation of polemics...about the conceptual and experimental developments in life sciences during the course of the twentieth century.
Cecily Cannan Selby
Once again, with the prescience her readers have come to expect from her, Evelyn Fox Keller is ahead of the curve in identifying and illuminating new questions for our attention...[Keller] addresses myths and misunderstandings that surround the concept of a gene...[Her] informed and entertaining volume takes the reader on a quick historical tour through the gestation and birth of molecular genetics and then, with a few helpful illustrations, into current perceptions of gene structure and function in sufficient detail to explain her critical arguments...Her fascinating tale should raise your interest in the biological mysteries that remain.
Natural History
"Sequence information" may not be the Rosetta stone of biological functions, cautions MIT historian of science Keller in her chronicle of the twentieth century's achievements in molecular biology.This a detailed text catering to scientists and historians/philosophers of science, which gives the general reader an acurate overview of genetics and DNA.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A former MacArthur fellow and a professor of history and philosophy of science at MIT, Keller (Keywords in Evolutionary Biology) tackles the contemporary revolution in genetic science. Although originally a critic of the Human Genome Project (the effort to sequence the entire human genome), Keller doesn't dismiss it out of hand anymore. "What is most impressive to me," she writes, "is not so much the ways in which the genome project has fulfilled our expectations but the ways in which it has transformed them." In this tight, clearly written survey, Keller does a wonderful job of explaining and demonstrating how our knowledge of genetics has accumulated to the extent that we can fathom what we don't understand. In her articulate and insightful, if abbreviated, history of genetics and molecular biology, she suggests that most of our common assumptions about genes are either too simplistic or simply incorrect. It turns out, for example, that a single functioning gene may be split and found in several locations on a chromosome, and it's rare that a gene can be determined to have caused any particular trait, characteristic or behavior. Keller argues that scientists have gained a great deal by refocusing their attention from individual genes to the concept of an integrated genetic program. Keller's ideas are provocative, and she is interested in contributing to a popular discussion about the politics of genetic research, but because she skips a lot of the scientific basics, the general reader won't be able to grasp all of her points. Even so, her reputation as a scholar of genetics means this will appeal primarily to hard-core biology/genetics devotees. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In scientific literature as well as the popular press, "gene talk" is rampant and, even when technical, can seem confidently glib. Keller (Refiguring Life: Metaphors of 20th Century Biology), a noted feminist historian and philosopher of science, wonders whether these writers really know what they are talking about. Over the last century, scientific conceptions of what a gene is and does have changed from its being viewed as a discrete element of heredity to an ingredient in a determinant program to a component of a dynamic, distributed, self-correcting network. Yet the word gene, with all of its ambiguities, has been retained. Keller puts this philosophical problem in a broad context, and while the historical stories of discoveries in genetics have been told many times, her interpretations of how they changed the meanings of gene carry the argument for a new vocabulary for the field. Especially compelling are her analogies between biological development and adaptive computer systems. This discussion is for scientists and historians/philosophers of science mostly. For general readers, a good overview of genetics and DNA is Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee's The DNA Mystique (LJ 3/15/95).--Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY at Albany Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
The author of Refiguring Life (1995) assesses a hundred years of progress in genetics, perhaps the most exciting area in modern science, focusing on the conceptual problems inherent in the little understood nature of the gene itself.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674008250
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/22/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 5.49 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Evelyn Fox Keller is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at MIT. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and numerous honorary degrees.
Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt




Introduction


The Life of a Powerful Word


               In 1900 three papers appeared in the same volume of the Proceedings of the German Botanical Society—the first by Hugo de Vries, the second by Carl Correns, and the third by Erich von Tschermak. De Vries, Correns, and Tschermak had independently "rediscovered" the rules of inheritance that Gregor Mendel, at the time an obscure Austrian monk, had found forty years earlier in his solitary investigations of pea plants. Mendel's original paper may have failed to attract much attention, but these papers did not. Indeed, they are generally credited not only with rescuing Mendel from oblivion but also with launching the science that would soon be called "genetics," and with that new science the age I am calling "the century of the gene."

    The actual term genetics was coined in 1906, when William Bateson informed the International Congress of Botany that "a new and well developed branch of Physiology has been created. To this study we may give the title Genetics." The term gene came along three years later, introduced by Wilhelm Johannsen. What was a gene? This no one could say. Johannsen himself wanted a new word so that it might be free of the taint of preformationism associated with such precursor terms as Darwin's gemmules (his units of "pangenesis"), Weismann's determinants, or de Vries' pangens. "Therefore," he wrote, "it appears simplest to isolate the last syllable, `gene,' which alone is of interest tous ... The word `gene' is completely free from any hypotheses; it expresses only the evident fact that, in any case, many characteristics of the organism are specified in the gametes by means of special conditions, foundations, and determiners which are present in unique, separate, and thereby independent ways—in short, precisely what we wish to call genes."

    Two years later, Johannsen added, "The `gene' is nothing but a very applicable little word, easily combined with others, and hence it may be useful as an expression for the `unit factors,' `elements' or `allelomorphs' in the gametes, demonstrated by modern Mendelian researches ... As to the nature of the `genes,' it is as yet of no value to propose any hypothesis; but that the notion of the `gene' covers a reality is evident in Mendelism." A little word, perhaps-but a remarkably powerful one nonetheless. Indeed, this little word proved powerful enough to guide research in the science of genetics for the remainder of the century.

    Not surprisingly, Johannsen's strictures against hypotheses about the material nature of the gene were rather less influential. As late as 1933, T. H. Morgan might claim, "There is no consensus opinion amongst geneticists as to what the genes are—whether they are real or purely fictitious." Yet for the majority of Morgan's colleagues (indeed, for Morgan himself), genes had by then become incontrovertibly real, material entities—the biological analogue of the molecules and atoms of physical science, endowed with the properties that would make it possible, as de Vries had written, "to explain by their combinations the phenomena of the living world."

    For H. J. Muller, a student of Morgan's, the gene was not only "the fundamental unit of heredity" but "the basis of life." Thus, for Muller, as for many other geneticists of the time, the question that begged was crucial: Just what sort of entity is a gene? Perhaps it was some sort of chemical molecule, but what sort? What is it made of, how big is it, and, above all, from whence comes its miraculous power to determine the properties of a developing organism and, at the same time, ensure the stability of those properties from one generation to another?

    For the first four decades of this century, progress in genetics was steady and cumulative, but it offered little in the way of answers to such basic questions as these. The beginnings of an answer to the question of what genes are made of came in 1943 with Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty's identification of DNA as the carrier of biological specificity in bacteria. At roughly the same time, the first hint of what a gene does was provided by the "one gene-one enzyme" hypothesis of George Beadle and Edward Tatum. But it was the triumphal announcement by James D. Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 which convinced biologists not only that genes are real molecules but also that they are constituted of nothing more mysterious than deoxyribonucleic acid. Thus, by midcentury, all remaining doubts about the material reality of the gene were dispelled and the way was cleared for the gene to become the foundational concept capable of unifying all of biology. Moreover, the identification of DNA as the genetic material spawned a new era of analysis, in which the powerful techniques of molecular genetics would replace those of classical genetics. As everyone knows, the ensuing progress has been spectacular, and it continues to accelerate.

    In many ways, the advances of the last twenty-five years have been the most dramatic of the century (as well as the most publicized), and they have come largely as a consequence of, first, the advent of recombinant DNA technology in the mid 1970s and, second, the launching of the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 1990. Building on the phenomenal advances of molecular genetics, this enterprise—somewhat misleadingly named insofar as its mission has been to sequence not only the human genome but the genomes of other organisms of interest to biologists as well—has promised to reveal the genetic blueprint that tells us who we are. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more dramatic climax to the efforts of the entire century than the recent announcement that a draft of the entire sequence of the human genome will be completed in time to mark the centennial. At the very least, that announcement comes as a fitting climax to the career of the man who has been one of the prime movers behind this project: as Watson himself has put it, "Start out with the double helix and end up with the human genome."

    When the Human Genome Project was first proposed in the mid 1980s, it evoked a great deal of skepticism. But today, as its pace exceeds all expectations, few skeptics remain. So far, the complete genomes of over twenty-five microbial organisms have been sequenced, including those of that illustrious bacterium Escherichia coli on which molecular biology first cut its teeth. Genomes of more sophisticated model organisms have also been sequenced: yeast was the first, followed in 1998 by the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans—the first higher organism to be sequenced. The fruit fly Drosophila, the most famous of all model organisms in the history of genetics, made its debut in February 2000. The task of sequencing the human genome itself began relatively late, but its progress has been breathtaking: Less than 3 percent of the human genome had been sequenced by the end of 1997; by November 30, 1998, that number had risen to 7.1 percent; by September 5, 1999, it had reached 22 percent, and by the end of 1999, 47 percent. The expectation is that we should have a complete draft of the sequence of the human genome before the end of the year 2000.

    I confess to having been one of the early critics. Like many others, I believed that so exclusive a focus on sequence information was both misguided and misleading. But today I am ready to share in the general enthusiasm for the HGP's achievements, although from a somewhat unusual perspective. What is most impressive to me is not so much the ways in which the genome project has fulfilled our expectations but the ways in which it has transformed them.

    The aim of this book is to celebrate the surprising effects that the successes of this project have had on biological thought. Contrary to all expectations, instead of lending support to the familiar notions of genetic determinism that have acquired so powerful grip on the popular imagination, these successes pose critical challenges to such notions. Today, the prominence of genes in both the general media and the scientific press suggests that in this new science of genomics, twentieth-century genetics has achieved its apotheosis. Yet, the very successes that have so stirred our imagination have also radically undermined their core driving concept, the concept of the gene. As the HGP nears the realization of its goals, biologists have begun to recognize that those goals represent not an end but the beginning of a new era of biology. Craig Stephens writes, "Sequence gazing alone cannot predict with confidence the precise functions of the multitude of encoding regions in even a simple genome!" For this reason, he continues, "the era of genomic analysis represents a new beginning, not the beginning of the end, for experimental biology."

    To see how progress in genomics has begun to transform the way many biologists think about genes and genetics, and even about the meaning of the genome project itself, it is useful to recall the expectations with which that project began. A decade ago, many biologists spoke as if sequence information would, by itself, provide all that was necessary for an understanding of biological function. Spelling out his "Vision of the Grail," Walter Gilbert wrote, "Three billion bases of sequence can be put on a single compact disc (CD), and one will be able to pull a CD out of one's pocket and say, `Here is a human being; it's me!'" Today, almost no one would make such a provocative claim. Doubts about the adequacy of sequence information for an understanding of biological function have become ubiquitous, even among molecular biologists, and largely as a consequence of the increasing sophistication of genomic research. Instead of a "Rosetta Stone," molecular geneticist William Gelbart suggests that "it might be more appropriate to liken the human genome sequence to the Phaestos Disk: an as yet undeciphered set of glyphs from a Minoan palace ... With regard to understanding the A's, T's. G's, and C's of genomic sequence, by and large, we are functional illiterates."

    Now that the genomes of several lower organisms have been fully sequenced, the call for a new phase of genome analysis—functional genomics rather than structural genomics—is heard with growing frequency. Hieter and Boguski define functional genomics as "the development and application of global (genome-wide or system-wide) experimental approaches to assess gene function by making use of the information and reagents provided by structural genomics." In their view, the sequence no longer appears as an end-product but rather as a tool: "The recent completion of the genome sequence of the budding yeast ... has provided the raw material to begin exploring the potential power of functional genomics approaches." In a similar vein, anticipation of the full sequence of the Drosophila genome found geneticists who study this organism girding for a long haul. As Burtis and Hawley put it, they are preparing for "the huge amount of work that will be involved in correlating the primary DNA sequence with genetic function ... This link is essential if we are to bring full biological relevance to the flood of raw data produced by this and other projects to sequence the genomes of `model' organisms."

    It is a rare and wonderful moment when success teaches us humility, and this, I argue, is precisely the moment at which we find ourselves at the end of the twentieth century. Indeed, of all the benefits that genomics has bequeathed to us, this humility may ultimately prove to have been its greatest contribution. For almost fifty years, we lulled ourselves into believing that, in discovering the molecular basis of genetic information, we had found the "secret of life"; we were confident that if we could only decode the message in DNA's sequence of nucleotides, we would understand the "program" that makes an organism what it is. And we marveled at how simple the answer seemed to be. But now, in the call for a functional genomics, we can read at least a tacit acknowledgment of how large the gap between genetic "information" and biological meaning really is.

    Of course, the existence of such a gap had long been intuited, and not infrequently voices could be heard attempting to caution us. It is only now, however, that we begin to fathom its depths, marveling not at the simplicity of life's secrets but at their complexity. One might say that structural genomics has given us the insight we needed to confront our own hubris, insight that could illuminate the limits of the vision with which we began.

    In the main body of this book, I review four of the more important lessons that molecular genomics has helped us learn. The first concerns the role of the gene in what may well be the most fundamental dynamic of the living world: maintaining the faithful reproduction of traits from generation to generation and providing the variability on which evolution depends—that is, ensuring both genetic stability and genetic variability. In the second chapter, I discuss the meaning of gene function and ask: What is it that a gene does? In the third, I examine the notion of a genetic program and contrast that idea with the concept of a developmental program. And in the fourth chapter, I argue for the importance of resiliency in biological development and consider the ways in which a search for design principles that would ensure developmental reliability and robustness exposes some of the limits of genetic analysis.

    Throughout each of these chapters, my primary focus is on the ever-widening gaps between our starting assumptions and the actual data that the new molecular tools are now making available. These tools are themselves the direct product of the most recent advances in molecular genetics and genomics; yet at the same time, and in the most eloquent testimony to the prowess of science I can imagine, they have worked to erode many of the core assumptions on which these efforts were first premised. In the recent calls for a functional genomics, I read an acknowledgment of the limitations of the most extreme forms of reductionism that had earlier held sway. And even though the message has yet to reach the popular press, to an increasingly large number of workers at the forefront of contemporary research, it seems evident that the primacy of the gene as the core explanatory concept of biological structure and function is more a feature of the twentieth century than it will be of the twenty-first. What will take its place? Indeed, we might ask, will biology ever again be able to offer an explanatory framework of comparable simplicity and allure?

    What, in short, will the biology of the twenty-first century look like? I have no crystal ball, but perhaps some indications of its shape can be seen in the new lexicon that begins to emerge as biologists turn their attention to "cross-talk" and "checkpoints," to genetic, epigenetic, and "post-genomic" metabolic networks, and even to multiple systems of inheritance. But will the new lexicon ever cohere into an explanatory framework providing anything close to the satisfaction that genes once offered? This I cannot say, and in any case, the answer will depend not only on what biologists find, not only on the adequacy of such terms and concepts to these findings, but also on the particular needs those explanations will be expected to satisfy in the coming decades.

    Only three predictions seem safe to make about the character of biology in a post-genomic age. First, a radically transformed intra- and intercellular bestiary will require accommodation in the new order of things, and it will include numerous elements defying classification in the traditional categories of animate and inanimate. Second, biologists who seek to make sense of these new elements will have a considerably expanded array of conceptual tools with which to work. Third, even so, they are not likely to stop talking about genes-not, at least, in the near future.

    Why is that? What is it that keeps the term alive? This question I take up in my conclusion, and, in brief, my answer is twofold. First, Johannsen's "little word" has become far too entrenched in our vocabulary for it to disappear altogether; and second, despite all its ambiguity, it has not yet outlived its usefulness. Thus, at the end of this book I turn to the question "What are genes for?" and argue that to ask this question is also, at least implicitly, to ask "What is gene talk for?" I point to several particularly important ways in which gene talk functions today.

    Paramount among these is the convenience of gene talk as an operational shorthand for scientists working in specific experimental contexts. Furthermore, gene talk identifies concrete levers or handles for effecting specific kinds of change. And finally, gene talk is an undeniably powerful tool of persuasion, useful not only in promoting research agendas and securing funding but also (perhaps especially) in marketing the products of a rapidly expanding biotech industry. My rather brief comments about these functions are not intended as a recapitulation of the central arguments of the book but rather as a way of calling attention to some of the many questions and issues it does not address, and for which the interested reader will need to look elsewhere.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: The Life of a Powerful Word
  • 1. Motors of Stasis and Change: The Regulation of Genetic Stability
  • 2. The Meaning of Gene Function: What Does a Gene Do?
  • 3. The Concept of a Genetic Program: How to Make an Organism
  • 4. Limits of Genetic Analysis: What Keeps Development on Track?
  • Conclusion: What Are Genes For?
  • Notes
  • References
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(0)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)