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The Century of the Gene

The Century of the Gene

Evelyn Fox Keller

ISBN 9780674039438

Publication date: 07/01/2009

In a book that promises to change the way we think and talk about genes and genetic determinism, Evelyn Fox Keller, one of our most gifted historians and philosophers of science, provides a powerful, profound analysis of the achievements of genetics and molecular biology in the twentieth century, the century of the gene. Not just a chronicle of biology’s progress from gene to genome in one hundred years, The Century of the Gene also calls our attention to the surprising ways these advances challenge the familiar picture of the gene most of us still entertain.

Keller shows us that the very successes that have stirred our imagination have also radically undermined the primacy of the gene—word and object—as the core explanatory concept of heredity and development. She argues that we need a new vocabulary that includes concepts such as robustness, fidelity, and evolvability. But more than a new vocabulary, a new awareness is absolutely crucial: that understanding the components of a system (be they individual genes, proteins, or even molecules) may tell us little about the interactions among these components.

With the Human Genome Project nearing its first and most publicized goal, biologists are coming to realize that they have reached not the end of biology but the beginning of a new era. Indeed, Keller predicts that in the new century we will witness another Cambrian era, this time in new forms of biological thought rather than in new forms of biological life.


  • Sometimes, with great luck, you happen on a book that is wondrous in its ability to take a topic apart and explain it lucidly. Sometimes, the joy is to be found in the way an author is able to put those pieces back together. And sometimes, it is the elegance both of analysis and synthesis that makes a book truly great. The Century of the Gene, by Evelyn Fox Keller, reaches that level and then vaults past it into the category of rare volumes that are unforgettable. This is the sort of book that, once found, can never be relinquished. The breadth of intellect is so strong, the importance of the subject so acute, the language so beautifully wrought, that you find yourself drawn to read it again and again, only to find a new dimension each time… In fact—and this is one of the most intense pleasures of the book—Fox Keller’s explanation of how the thinking about the gene has evolved over the past century is both as simple and as complex as the gene itself. Her topic is also her metaphor.

    —Alanna Mitchell, Globe and Mail


  • Evelyn Fox Keller was Professor Emerita of History and Philosophy of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and numerous honorary degrees.

Book Details

  • Harvard University Press

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