Dr Staffan Müller-Wille
My research combines questions of epistemology – questions concerning how knowledge is attained and how it changes over time – with careful historical case studies. My focus is on the history of the life sciences since the early modern period. Currently, I am working on three research projects, which all, in one way or other, turn around the role of classification in the life sciences.
1. History of Heredity
This is a long-term research project, that I have been pursuing since 2001 with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. The project has focused on the scientific, technological, and cultural practices in which knowledge of "heredity" was produced and in which it unfolded its effects over the past four centuries.
The project is collaborative and interdisciplinary, aiming to draw together expertise from the history of science, medicine, law, economics, and art as well as political history and anthropology. Its main results so far may be summarized as follows:
- Heredity is a biological concept that dates back to the early nineteenth century. Before, organic reproduction was conceptualized as an individual act of creation rather than a process of transmission.
- Heredity was a concept directed at explaining hereditary variation, rather than stability as such.
- With genetics and molecular biology in the twentieth century, molecular development rather than transmission became the reigning background for heredity theory.
The backbone of the research concept consists in an on-going series of international workshops. An essay collection on the history of heredity from the early 16th to the mid 19th century was published with MIT Press in 2007, and we are currently working on a follow-up volume covering the period 1850-1930. I have also co-authored a book with the title A Cultural History of Heredity (University of Chicago Press, 2012)on the subject with Rheinberger, which presents the results of the overall project to a broadly defined, non-specialist audience.
Another outcome from this collaboration is an article for the Stanford Encyclopedia for Philosophy on the concept of the gene, which I again co-authored with Rheinberger. The article argues, that the gene was never a tightly defined notion, and that its undoubtable success depended on its being a "concept in flux". A print version of this article was taken up in the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Biology. A book length-version is currently underv preparation..
For more details, see project website. The project is funded by the Karl Schaedler Foundation (Liechtenstein), and supported by both the Max Planck Institute for History of Science and the ESRC Research Centre for Genomics in Society.
2. History of Natural History
In my dissertation project, I focused on the work of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the founder of modern biological taxonomy. Linnaeus was the first to use the term "natural system", and in my dissertation I argued that it was grounded in practices of collecting, exchanging, and describing specimens. The results of the dissertation have been published in a book and a series of articles, most recently in Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences.
In recent years, I became increasingly interested in the ways in which the naturalist Carl Linnaeus assembled, filed, and cross-referenced information about plants and their medicinal virtues. Linnaeus has been described as a “pioneer in information retrieval” and provides an early example of "data-driven research", which is also characteristic of contemporary genomics.
Results from a first survey of Linnaeus's manuscripts, held at the Linnean Society of London, have been published on-line. A research grant from the Wellcome Trust for 2009-2013 has enabled me to pursue this project in much more detail in close collaboration with Dr. Isabelle Charmantier. For more details and a list of publications, see the project's website.
3. History of Racial Anthropology
One of my long term interests has been in the history of racial anthropology. It has recently been argued, that thinking in terms of race did not simply give way to a purely genetic understanding of human diversity in the twentieth century. Nor were earlier concepts of race in the eighteenth and twentieth century static and typological. The following questions guide my research in this project:
- What constituted the descriptive and explanatory power of the race concept prior to genetics?
- What were the conceptual and experimental strategies by which genetics subverted the race concept?
- What were the epistemic values (e.g. universality, analyticity) invoked to justify these subversive strategies?
- What political implications did these values possess?
In the academic year 2011/2012 I pursued this project as a research fellow in the Max Planck Resecrh Group "Historicizing Knowledge about Human Biological Diversity in the 20th Century" in Berlin.