This workshop aims to investigate mutation as a relatively unexplored phenomenon of interest in the history of biology. Analytical approaches to be employed may include the study of mutations as objects (mutants), as technical and social practices (mutagenesis, models, and networks), and in their many varied political and cultural contexts, from the dawn of genetics through the atomic era.
Deadline for abstract submissions: 15 June 2008.
Throughout the twentieth century, mutations have been at the heart of the sciences of heredity—from the publication of Hugo de Vries’ Die Mutationstheorie in 1901 to the rise of classical genetics, theoretical population genetics, molecular biology and beyond. Although mutations have played central roles in the emergence of each of these fields, they have been generally overshadowed by an overwhelming popular and scholarly attention to the related concept of the gene. Recent scholarship has reminded us, however, that genetics was understood and practiced in widely different ways among different communities of practitioners, not all of whom were primarily concerned with the gene itself, but many of whom engaged with the study and production of mutants and mutation at various levels and contexts—in the field, the laboratory, and elsewhere.
From ever-transmuting concepts of mutation and shifts in discourse to novel practices in the field and laboratory, to the distribution and regulation of mutagens and broad-scale governmental involvement, mutation thus seems a particularly fruitful way to explore how the study of heredity in the organism and heredity in society intertwined, from Die Mutationstheorie until the dawn of biotech. Engaging with mutations as our focus of study—rather than genes in general—thus opens up new vistas for exploration as well as new approaches to otherwise familiar material.
The place of mutants in the history of genetics has been thus far underestimated. Time and again geneticists used mutants to understand heredity: the mutant was that which violated the established order, the unexpected surprising element that was both anathema to conceptual order and yet central to experimental practices producing that order. At first unpredictable in their occurrence and form, attempts were repeatedly made in the first half of the twentieth century to induce mutants at will, to control evolution, and to harness its power for human ends—with distinctly mixed results. Mutants often remained surprising and were sometimes dangerous, as were frequently the techniques used to produce them. Wily epistemic things, mutants provided always new, and yet always familiar, ways for heredity to jump out again as an unrestrained, unsolved phenomenon. Understanding mutants as objects can help us begin to more fully explore their central role in the history of biology of this period.
Mutants—and mutations more generally—proliferated throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Understanding the production, amplification, and domestication of mutation in this period entails close study of the varied manners and contexts of practice: from operative concepts and interpretations of mutation to specific techniques and moral economies. Engaging with mutants embedded in such practices can perhaps help us to begin to unpack the relationships between “mutants” and “mutations” and those who dealt with them—and with each other.
In the study of transmission heredity, for example, the induction of mutations often entailed a mode of inquiry that included altering the environment partly by means of new tools: radium, X-rays, and chemicals. Such new tools existed in complex relationships with practices of characterizing and enumerating mutation: what was a mutation? How could one detect its occurrence? Moreover, the use of such mutation-inducing tools also points directly to relations with larger society: the use of radiation and chemical compounds is inextricable from broader processes of medicalization and industrialization in the first half of the twentieth century. The study of mutation as both object and practice thus also requires paying close attention to the ways in which social institutions, agricultural imperatives, eugenical concerns, clinical hopes, and industrial relations all aligned in particular configurations at particular junctures in time.
CONTEXTS and CONNECTIONS
No longer merely a nodal point in a network of small-scale specialist communities and practices, mutation thus came to embrace a variety of larger social concerns in times of world-historical change, from eugenical worries and matters of social welfare to the development of novel forms of risk assessment able to face a brave new mutagenic world. As the role of state governments proved central to the regulation of toxic mutagens, mutations were inherently part of a broader biopolitics, a situation that became ever more true with the dawning of the atomic age, fears of radioactive fall-out, the emergence of concepts of “genetic load,” and the far-reaching environmental policies of the nineteen-sixties. By mid-century, the environment was no longer merely a tool or a resource for the scientific study of mutation. Rather, broader social and industrial processes that made such novel mutagens available in the first place had turned the environment into an arena of urgent social alarm. But biopolitics operated at more conceptual and simultaneously explicitly “political” dimensions as well: in altering the hereditary substance by changing environmental conditions, for example, the use of mutagens placed dimensions of genetics in a complicated position with respect to questions of Lamarckism and challenges from Lysenkoism. Such macroscale dimensions of the history of mutation also are in need of their histories.
TOPICS and QUESTIONS
Exploring the ways in which using mutation as an analytical lens can move us from the laboratory to the world and back again is our goal. What new narratives in the history of classical genetics, and of the interwoven texture of its scientific and social dimensions, can we uncover with mutation as our centerpiece? How can mutation as an analytical frame enrich our understanding of the cultural history of heredity?
Such new narratives to be developed might include the following topics:
• the development of powerful new research traditions (such as “Oenotheory”)
• early attempts to induce mutation and to design synthetic new species and to control evolution for human purposes
• discerning biological levels of mutation and varieties of mutagens
• addressing shifting and plural meanings of mutation in science, politics, and popular culture
• exploring mutations as processes/tools
• examining mutants as products/model organisms (e.g., Drosophila, jimsonweed, phage, humans)
• situating mutants as nodal points in networks of practices, moral economies, and institutions
• comparing different national and transnational contexts of mutation research
Abstracts (500 words) and contact information should be sent to Luis Campos at firstname.lastname@example.org by 15 June 2008.
Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte
We envision being able to respond to all proposals by July 2008. Travel and accommodation costs of speakers will be covered. Accepted participants should prepare to present for 25-30 minutes, and will be expected to provide a final draft of their work by 15 November 2008, in order to ensure commentators sufficient time for response.
For in-depth information relating to the project “A Cultural History of Heredity,” see http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/en/HEREDITY/index.html.
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