Cover: The Century of the Gene, from Harvard University PressCover: The Century of the Gene in PAPERBACK

The Century of the Gene

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$32.00 • £27.95 • €29.95

ISBN 9780674008250

Publication Date: 04/15/2002

Academic Trade

192 pages

5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

7 halftones, 7 line illustrations


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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, The Globe and Mail

[Keller] is at the same time enthusiastic about the light that has been shed on the nature of life and critical of the oversimplifications that she feels have been made… She is well qualified to draw [her conclusions]. She has an admirable grasp of recent research in molecular genetics…and has read widely in the history of genetics… She has also thought hard about both the history and the current state of the subject… We need Keller’s voice.—John Maynard Smith, The New York Review of Books

The Century of the Gene is unusual among popular histories of science in that it largely avoids both technical minutiae and sociological or historical background. Rather, it is almost exclusively a history of ideas, even a history of just one idea—the concept of the gene. Keller’s aim, one that she achieves admirably, is to give readers just enough information about discoveries in molecular biology so that they can appreciate the consequence of those discoveries for our understanding of what genes are.—Austin L. Hughes, Commonweal

[Keller writes] with a peculiar, elegant blend of linguistic skill, historical reflection, conceptual analysis and synthetic outlook, and with the generously encompassing gesture of someone who participated in and followed the developments of molecular biology and genetics over several decades… Keller sees her book as a plea for scientific and political realism. Indeed it is. But it is more than just that. It engages historians, philosophers, scientists and the educated lay public alike in a discussion that self-consciously resists the temptation of polemics…about the conceptual and experimental developments in life sciences during the course of the twentieth century.—Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, American Scientist

[In] a lucid analysis of the mind-boggling advances in genetics and molecular biology in the twentieth century, Keller says it’s time to change the way we think about the gene.The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The very word ‘gene’ symbolizes our self-obsessed culture. All we do, know, learn, and sacrifice is somehow explained away by appealing to this tiny and elusive biological structure. Yet according to at least one scientist, it’s time for us to shift our focus and branch out to other possible, and perhaps more suitable, interpretations of our natures. In The Century of the Gene, Evelyn Fox Keller urges the genomic society to break free of the linguistic (and therefore conceptual) restraints and the historical baggage inherent in the use of the term ‘gene’—a break she sees as imperative and, ultimately, inevitable.Rain Taxi

The Century of the Gene, by Evelyn Fox Keller, not only provides an insightful overview of the role of a gene in the creation of an organism but also traces the history of our perception of the gene’s role in that creation… Keller provides several concise figures that allow a person with minimal knowledge of molecular biology to understand the basics of what a gene is and how it functions within the body. This book also captures past and present thought from critical scientists and philosophers who have contributed to our current understanding of molecular biology… [The] overall outlook provides a new understanding of the dynamics of gene regulation and predicts that a new era in which we can understand how to control our own evolution is approaching. From a research perspective, we hope to be able to use this knowledge to help correct medical disorders. However, from a moral and religious perspective, many new boundaries are being crossed. Read this book. You will challenge yourself in trying to figure out what the future will be.—Dr. John J. Nemunaitis, Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings

Evelyn Fox Keller’s The Century of the Gene is a clear, concise and challenging contribution to our understanding of the history of genetics and of modern biology more generally. There can be no doubt that Keller’s analysis of ‘gene talk,’ that is, her analysis of the variety of contexts and ways in which biologists have deployed the word ‘gene’, is more than timely.—Paolo Palladino, British Journal for the History of Science

The notes…are detailed and useful… Her book is a thought-provoking review of the history and philosophy of genetics and genomics.—Victor A. McKusick, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

Among the many books on cloning and genetic therapy, The Century of the Gene, an overview of current research and thought by philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller, seems especially promising.—Martin Levin, The Globe and Mail

Although brief, this book is packed with good things. The historical analysis is unfailingly interesting, the scientific reportage lucid. Best of all, perhaps, is the sheer excitement the book communicates about the state of genetics and the need to get that state into proper focus, using all the intellectual resources going… I am impressed by the diversity of gene concepts within what Keller sees…as a single concept… Her own contribution to the case for conceptual unity is an important one.—Gregory Radick, Heredity

[This] book opens up exciting possibilities of new ways of thinking about biological organization, which are not overshadowed by traditional language or by ‘historical baggage’… Evelyn Fox Keller has put down a marker in this important book. The time has come for us to take on a richer understanding of genetics and with it some new language and concepts.—Sue Weldon, New Genetics and Society

Once again, with the prescience her readers have come to expect from her, Evelyn Fox Keller is ahead of the curve in identifying and illuminating new questions for our attention… [Keller] addresses myths and misunderstandings that surround the concept of a gene… [Her] informed and entertaining volume takes the reader on a quick historical tour through the gestation and birth of molecular genetics and then, with a few helpful illustrations, into current perceptions of gene structure and function in sufficient detail to explain her critical arguments… Her fascinating tale should raise your interest in the biological mysteries that remain.—Cecily Cannan Selby, Radcliffe Quarterly

For anyone fascinated by biology, the technology used to explore it, and the medical promises implicit in the information contained within our genetic material, Keller’s overview makes for clear, engaging, and exciting reading.—Tom Bowden, Tech Directions

Keller traces the evolution of genetic science over the course of the twentieth century, during which Gregor Mendel’s theories of inheritance were rediscovered, the structure of DNA revealed, and the human genome mapped—world-changing achievements that have taken our understanding of genetics far beyond the level at which the now too-simple word gene was coined.—Donna Seaman, Booklist

In this tight, clearly written survey, Keller does a wonderful job of explaining and demonstrating how our knowledge of genetics has accumulated… In her articulate and insightful…history of genetics and molecular biology, she suggests that most of our common assumptions about genes are either too simplistic or simply incorrect.Publishers Weekly

In The Century of the Gene, Evelyn Keller gathers together her considerable skills as a mathematician, physicist, historian and philosopher and applies them to the central problem of the last 100 years of biology, namely the relation of the genes to the building of an organism. The scholarship is masterly, not only because of her wide reading of the literature, but her deep, penetrating understanding of what she reads. To cap it all she writes clearly and elegantly so that the book is a pleasure to read. This is a conspicuously intelligent book.—John Bonner, Princeton University

Evelyn Keller has the disturbing ability to make you think again from scratch about things you thought you had already understood. It is a long time since I have thought so hard about fundamental problems in genetics as I did when reading The Century of the Gene.—Richard Lewontin, Harvard University

Genes have captured the scientific and popular imagination. But in The Century of the Gene, Evelyn Fox Keller provides us with a powerful analysis of the limits of the gene as an explanatory concept. Indeed, the success of molecular biology and greater understanding of biological development have exposed the wide gap between genetic information and biological meaning, undermining the very concept of the gene. Yet gene talk with all its historical baggage persists in shaping both science and popular perceptions. Keller argues convincingly for a new language, for new concepts that will enable us to deal with the real complexity of biological organization. This is a critically important book to be very widely read.—Dorothy Nelkin, New York University

In this elegantly written book, Evelyn Fox Keller tells the fascinating story of how the heuristic power of genetic experimentation interacts with the narrative power of the word ‘gene.’ Both are built on and reinforce each other. I never saw an equally convincing and well informed narrative on how language mediates the interaction between experimental research and its social context.—Günter P. Wagner, Yale University

Awards & Accolades

  • Finalist, 2000 L. L. Winship / PEN New England Award

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