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Home 2011 Phillip Thurtle, "The Emergence of Genetic Rationality," discussion @ Duke

Phillip Thurtle, "The Emergence of Genetic Rationality," discussion @ Duke

Discussion of Phillip Thurtle's 2008 book _The Emergence of Genetic Rationality_, c/o Duke English Dept History of Science & Literary Form Working Group

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Where Allen 303J, Duke Univ Campus
Contact Name Nancy Armstrong & Rob Mitchell
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Discussion will focus on the fourth chapter of Dr. Thurtle's book The Emergence of Genetic Rationality: Space, Time, and Information in American Biological Science, 1870-1920.  Dr. Thurtle will begin the session with a brief discussion of his project, followed by 2 short responses, and then the reminder of the meeting time will be given over to discussion of his chapter and its implications for literary and interdisciplinary study.

If you plan to attend, we ask you to RSVP to Rebecca Evans ( or Meghan O'Neil ( by Monday, Oct. 11, so that we have an accurate head count.

Description of Phillip Thurtle, The Emergence of Genetic Rationality Space, Time, and Information in American Biological Science, 1870-1920 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008):

The emergence of genetic science has profoundly shaped how we think about biology. Indeed, it is difficult now to consider nearly any facet of human experience without first considering the gene. But this mode of understanding life is not, of course, transhistorical. Phillip Thurtle takes us back to the moment just before the emergence of genetic rationality at the turn of the twentieth century to explicate the technological, economic, cultural, and even narrative transformations necessary to make genetic thinking possible.

The rise of managerial capitalism brought with it an array of homologous practices, all of which transformed the social fabric. With transformations in political economy and new technologies came new conceptions of biology, and it is in the relationships of social class to breeding practices, of middle managers to biological information processing, and of transportation to experiences of space and time, that we can begin to locate the conditions that made genetic thinking possible, desirable, and seemingly natural.

In describing this historical moment, The Emergence of Genetic Rationality is panoramic in scope, addressing primary texts that range from horse breeding manuals to eugenics treatises, natural history tables to railway surveys, and novels to personal diaries. It draws on the work of figures as diverse as Thorstein Veblen, Jack London, Edith Wharton, William James, and Luther Burbank. The central figure, David Starr Jordan - naturalist, poet, eugenicist, educator - provides the book with a touchstone for deciphering the mode of rationality that genetics superseded.

Building on continental philosophy, media studies, systems theory, and theories of narrative, The Emergence of Genetic Rationality provides an inter-disciplinary contribution to intellectual and scientific history, science studies, and cultural studies. It offers a truly encyclopedic cultural history that challenges our own ways of organizing knowledge even as it explicates those of an earlier era. In a time in which genetic rationality has become our own common sense, this discussion of its emergence reminds us of the interdependence of the tools we use to process information and the conceptions of life they animate.

From reviews of The Emergence of Genetic Rationality: Space, Time, and Information in American Biological Science, 1870-1920:

"This work is an extraordinary writing in its comprehensiveness, conciseness, and interdisciplinary focus. Thurtle presents an intellectually historical journey, weaving cultural, economic, political, social, literary, and artistic forces that shaped thinking and developments related to genetics during this 50-year period. . . . Highly recommended. All undergraduates, graduate students, researchers, and faculty." - Choice

"An important, novel way to look at the history of genetics. . . . By studying the way time and space are mapped, classified, used, and interpreted by 19-century industrialists and the scientists who received their philanthropic largesse, Thurtle brings out a part of the history of heredity that scientists like myself have tended to ignore. . . .I recommend this book for anyone who likes to see how the interplay between science and society worked in 19th-century biological thought." - The Quarterly Review of Biology

"Reading Phillip Thurtle's book is an immersive experience and the book should be read from cover to cover. Thurtle. . .explores literary representations of practices of meaning-making, spaces of sense, and modes of being in turn-of-the-century literature. Thurtle uses these devices to profound effect and the power of the book lies in its literary portrayal of the experiences of living and working in and with these cultures and technologies. - NTM: Zeitschrift fur Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin

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