The Emergence of Genetic Rationality
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The Emergence of Genetic Rationality

Space, Time, and Information in American Biological Science, 1870-1920

Phillip Thurtle

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eBook - ePub

The Emergence of Genetic Rationality

Space, Time, and Information in American Biological Science, 1870-1920

Phillip Thurtle

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About This Book

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poet, eugenicist, educator - provides the book with a touchstone for deciphering the mode of rationality that genetics superseded.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.

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PRELUDE

IN THE SPRING OF 1891, A TELEGRAPH MESSENGER interrupted a speech by Indiana University president David Starr Jordan with a note from his mentor, the great Andrew Dickson White. The note simply read: “Decline no offer from California till you hear from me.”1 Leland Stanford had offered the presidency of his new university to White. Although flattered to receive attention from a man with as much prominence and money as Stanford, White was already employed as the president of Cornell University, and, like most of his other established colleagues, saw no reason to give up comfortable circumstances to erect a new university on the wild side of a continent that had only recently boasted a transcontinental rail line.
Stanford had asked White because he approved of the curricular reforms that White had instituted while president of Cornell. The most important of these was a system called the “Major Professor System” in which a student was introduced to a professor within his chosen discipline. This professor then took it upon himself to recommend a course of study for the student that would ensure a breadth of learning in spite of the solid disciplinary focus.2 One reason that President White introduced this practice was to allow students to choose new fields of study that enabled them to develop professional careers in business, science,and engineering. Indeed, in his earliest speculations on the need for the university, Stanford wrote that he had tired of young men coming to ask him for work in the railroad without being adequately prepared in the dealings of a large business venture. Jordan later recollected that Stanford had hoped his new university would be “a center of invention and research, where students would be trained in ‘usefulness in life.’; [Stanford's] educational ideals, it appeared corresponded very closely with my own. Indeed, from President White he had been assured that I was the man to organize the institution he contemplated.”3 Jordan accepted Stanford's offer.
Jordan had graduated from Cornell, had assumed a teaching position there, and was appointed president of Indiana University at thirty-four years of age. Once president, Jordan lost no time in making over the curriculum in the image of Andrew Dickson White. A naturalist by training, Jordan understood the importance of ensuring that the curricula in new institutions emphasized science and engineering. While at Indiana, Jordan had used the prominence of his position to argue for the implementation of an elective system that would allow each student to choose a diversity of topics under close guidance.
While Jordan's perspective on the role of education for the new century plus the enthusiastic recommendation from White were enough to secure the position of president for the new university, Jordan shared another interest with his new employer: theories of animal husbandry and breeding. As a biologist, Jordan was interested in the problem of heredity from a theoretical perspective. Indeed, it was while studying under the great Louis Agassiz that Jordan decided to commit his career to the biological study of life. As a believer in the theory of evolution, however, Jordan would come to appreciate the relationship of living beings in ways that Agassiz became famous for resisting. Jordan's interest in heredity was rooted in the practical necessities of an agrarian life. His father bred Merino lambs, and Jordan's first scientific publication was on the topic of “hoof rot in sheep.”4
Meanwhile, Jordan's new employer, Stanford, was carrying on important investigations directed toward increasing the productivity of animals. Stanford's fortune was great enough, and his holdings of land vast enough, that he could set up one of the largest breeding farms in history to experiment with his theories regarding heredity. Until now, historians have only concentrated on one small component of these experiments, the part that brought the self-promoting Eadward Muybridge to the farm to develop a photographic means to understand the mechanics of equine locomotion. What has been left behind is the broad set of beliefs and hopes that convinced Stanford to hire Muybridge in the first place: an interest in breeding faster and thus more productive horses. This broad configuration of events was not lost on the professional naturalist Jordan. In an unpublished manuscript, Jordan claimed that Stanford was one of the first individuals to breed a fast horse in order to get fast progeny.5 Some would go so far as to remark that Stanford hired Jordan out of his interest in breeding and eugenics. In a letter to Jordan, Muybridge even claimed that his research was responsible for the development of Stanford University:
I think it will be admitted by everyone, cognizant of the facts, that it was the recognition by the scientific world of the value of my method of investigation, and of its possibilities, that first inspired Leland Stanford with the idea of assisting in the promotion of human knowledge, not only by original research, but also, by the education of students, to aid in the opening up of new fields for the employment of the abilities of those so educated; and I think it may be fairly claimed that the photographic investigation, and record of changes incidental to motion, originated by me, and carried on at Palo Alto under Mr. Stanford's auspices was the germ from which sprung the ideas which culminated in the founding of your University.6
Although it is difficult to take this claim by Muybridge seriously, the fact that he made this claim at all suggests that the larger usefulness of his project was in the training of living beings more suited to the requirements of an industrialized society. Muybridge saw both the horse farm and the university as places of research and education. Leland Stanford also saw an unbroken trajectory between his experiments in horse breeding and his developing an educational and research institution. “Eventually the land, together with the entire breeding stud, will be handed over to the trustees of Leland Stanford, Jr., University, to be carried on in the lines already laid down by me.… The president of the university and some of the professors are already showing an extraordinary interest in the breeding problem.”7
The similarities of interest between the industrialist and the naturalist were not coincidental. As I will argue in what follows, the desire to look at living beings from this particular perspective was in part a function of a new way of looking at inheritance in light of the development of large-scale ventures in industrial capital. The Progressive Era dream of setting up institutions to promote a democratic meritocracy not only catered to a new type of human potential, it supplied the means for training students who were thought to have this potential, and then naturalized this type of achievement under a notion of heritable relationships. In their philanthropic gifts, Stanford and other industrialists sought more than just educating individuals for an industrial society. They were developing a set of values that privileged those who best fit into this society. They were, in fact, breeding true.

1 / Middle Class Mores

Beaufort's Bastards

NEWLAND ARCHER DINED ONE EVENING IN THE 1870s with his mother; his sister, Miss Sophy Jackson; and the authority on New York's families, the old bachelor Sillerton Jackson. The news about the imminent financial collapse of a prominent banker, Julius Beaufort, had been the topic of conversation for weeks now. The participants in the pyramid of the New York elite always felt that Beaufort was “common.” Having arrived from England with letters of recommendation in his hand but little money in his purse, the uneducated Beaufort had “speedily made himself an important position in the world of affairs; but his habits were dissipated, his tongue was bitter, his antecedents mysterious.”1
For the guests at Mrs. Archer's table, Beaufort represents just one more crack in the edifice of the New York social elite. “Observing it from the lofty standpoint of a non-participant, [Archer's mother] was able, with the help of Mr. Sillerton Jackson and Miss Sophy, to trace each new crack in its surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between the ordered rows of social vegetables.”2 Because of the scandal, Mrs. Archer supposes that the Beauforts would retire from polite society and live in their country house in North Carolina. She remarks, “‘Beaufort has always kept a racing stable, and he better breed trotting horses. I should say he had all the qualities of a successful horse dealer.’ Everyone agreed with her.”3
In this imagined dinner table conversation, Edith Wharton sketches the reactions of the old-moneyed New York elite to the brash and assuming manners of the newly wealthy. The understated confidence behind Mrs. Archer's declaration about Julius Beaufort's proper (as opposed to assumed) place in society relies on judgments shared in the patriciate regarding taste, family, and proper social form. In the Archers' social circle, one maintains social prestige by how one carries oneself in the world, and Beaufort's risky financial dealings and his predilection for fast horses distinguish him as from an inferior class. Wharton's Beaufort demonstrates how deeply intertwined personal taste was with class distinction and the conservation of familial property in the period.
To modern readers, Wharton's reference to Beaufort's trotters may seem little more than an allusion to an obsolete form of transportation. During the Gilded Age, however, trotters were powerful symbols of industrial progress. To begin with, raising and breeding trotters was the most popular leisure activity of rich industrialists; Cornelius Vanderbilt, Leland Stanford, John D. Rockefeller, and E. H. Harriman all drove or bred trotters. Moreover, trotting-horse racing was America's first “modern sport.” Trotting-horse owners relied on and promoted professional sports organizations, formal rules and regulations, professional specialization, formal statistical records, and a specialized sporting press. Although the sport's origins at county agricultural fairs resonated with the industrialists' own reverence for a rural past, the sport itself would not have been possible without the groomed roads of large urban centers.4 Since so many of the empire builders of the nineteenth century developed an interest in racing and breeding trotters, an investigation into the sport offers a unique opportunity to study the industrialists' theories on the potential of living beings.5 In an age when theories on the transmutation of the species were widely debated and where all living beings were confidently assessed by a calculus of productive labor, theories for increasing the labor power of horses often shed light on ways to increase the labor power of humans.
The late nineteenth-century practice of breeding trotting horses highlights at least four specific themes important for understanding the rise of genetic rationality:
1. Theories on breeding held by high-profile owners were perhaps the most widely disseminated theories on heredity in late nineteenth-century America. Written up in books, daily newspapers, and a specialized sporting press, these applications of industrial-sized success to the breeding of biological beings were eagerly awaited by the public.
2. Trotting-horse farms in general were one of the first modern agricultural enterprises. They were maintained with vast resources and run by extended managerial hierarchies under absentee owners, and they also sold specialized produce and utilized rationalized breeding methods. As such, they provide one of the first glimpses into how the tools of managerial capital privileged certain forms of human embodiment. For many in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those who developed fastest were assumed to have the potential to develop furthest. Although managerial capital did not create or determine this view of human development, it actively supported it.
3. The bodies of horses supplied much more than an analogue for thinking about human potential; they provided a forum for thinking about how to select for this potential and then apply those lessons to the training and breeding of humans. Horse breeding provided an overdetermined model for breeding and training because of the physical capacities and rich cultural associations of horses. The uniqueness of this combination of physical and cultural associations convinced trotting-horse breeders that they had identified a powerful tool for exploring the relationship between industrial demands and biological constraints. Some horse breeders interpreted fraction-of-a-second improvements in horses' trotting times as a demonstration of how industrial breeding techniques opened new capabilities for living beings.
4. Finally, horse breeding demonstrates how deeply intertwined theories of inheritance were with the values supported by and the information-processing procedures utilized in large-scale industrial enterprises. Garland Allen recently demonstrated how foundations that supported eugenic research “played an extremely important role during the Progressive Era in translating the concerns of wealthy elites into concrete, scientifically grounded research projects, or into social planning.”6 Much of the “translation” that Allen refers to took place through the transmission of a common set of values supported by the tools that industrialists, philanthropists, and scientists used to process and organize data. Without these tools of coordination and processing, these breeders could not have worked as easily on the large scales needed for effective selection of slow breeding organisms.
This chapter outlines how these values were formulated in opposition to an old-moneyed American elite. Chapter 2 looks at how industrial information processing tools (such as middle managers)7 made these values seem natural as well as modern when applied to large-scale breeding projects.
Edith Wharton may not have realized it, but horse breeding was the best-developed model for understanding the relation of biological inheritance to social circumstances. For many Gilded Age thinkers, the history of the horse mirrored Western civil development. The development of society was so dependent on horses that they were presumed to share the same history as Western Europeans. In the introductory chapter to the book The Horse in Motion (produced by Stanford from reproductions of photographs by Eadward Muybridge), J. D. B. Stillman writes that “the horse of all animals, holds the most important relations to the human family. Though the earliest traces of his existence on the globe are found as fossils in North America, as an historical character he is traced to Central Asia with the Caucasian race.”8
More importantly, horse breeders provided some Progressive reformers with the tools to reorganize society. Horse breeding encouraged the recording of elite horses' ancestors, much in the same fashion that elite families traced their own family origins. Depending on the value and type of horse, this might range from simple references to a horse's ancestor to elaborately drawn and researched pedigrees. After the turn of the century, eugenicists referred to the record keeping of horse breeders as the ideal means for consciously establishing the “proper” relation between human hereditary privilege and social circumstances. Charles B. Davenport, the head of the Eugenic Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, once remarked to a prospective patron that the most “progressive revolution in human history” would be attained “if human matings could be placed upon the same high plane as that of horse breeding.”9 According to many eugenicists, Americans could have solved most serious social problems if they chose mates with as much care as they chose prize breeding stock.
Horse breeders also provided the terms in which to think about the capacities of living beings in a hierarchically organized industrial society. The horse breeders' dual roles as gentlemen farmers and promoters of industry provided them with a unique perspective on the capabilities of living beings in an industrial social order. Attracted at first to riding horses as an escape from the demands of the modern world, horse breeders applied management techniques developed within their businesses to their own breeding enterprises. Industrialists utilized vast resources in setting up some of the first heavily capitalized experimental breeding farms.
Since most trotting-horse fanciers were newly moneyed, breeding horses reflected many middle-class values. Consequently, I begin this part by highlighting different conceptions for the reproduction ...

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Citation styles for The Emergence of Genetic Rationality
APA 6 Citation
Thurtle, P. (2011). The Emergence of Genetic Rationality ([edition unavailable]). University of Washington Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/723556/the-emergence-of-genetic-rationality-space-time-and-information-in-american-biological-science-18701920-pdf (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
Thurtle, Phillip. (2011) 2011. The Emergence of Genetic Rationality. [Edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/723556/the-emergence-of-genetic-rationality-space-time-and-information-in-american-biological-science-18701920-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Thurtle, P. (2011) The Emergence of Genetic Rationality. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/723556/the-emergence-of-genetic-rationality-space-time-and-information-in-american-biological-science-18701920-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Thurtle, Phillip. The Emergence of Genetic Rationality. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.