This essay considers the mid-twentieth century adoption of genetic explanations for three biological phenomena: nutritional adaptation, antibiotic resistance, and antibody production. This occurred at the same time as the hardening of the neo-Darwinian Synthesis in evolutionary theory. I argue that these concurrent changes reflect an ascendant narrative of genetic selfhood, which prioritized random hereditary variation and selection through competition, and marginalized physiological or environmental adaptation. This narrative was further reinforced by the Central Dogma of molecular biology and fit well with liberal political thought, with its focus on the autonomous individual. However, bringing biological findings into line with this narrative required modifying the notion of the gene to account for various kinds of non-Mendelian inheritance. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger's reflections on narrative and experiment are valuable in thinking about the friction between the postwar ideal of genetic selfhood and actual observations of how organisms adapt in response to the environment.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- History and Philosophy of Science
- antibiotic resistance
- genetic selfhood
- Hans-Jörg Rheinberger