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HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE

HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE


Figurative Language, Science, and the Rhetoric of the Real
ELIZABETH PARTHENIA SHEA
S TATE UNI VE RS I TY OF NE W Y ORK P RE S S
Published by
State University of New York Press, Albany
2008 State University of New York
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Shea, Elizabeth Parthenia, 1966
How the gene got its groove : figurative language, science, and the rhetoric of the real /
Elizabeth Parthenia Shea.
p. ; cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-7914-7425-9 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Genetics. 2. Communication in
sciencePhilosophy. 3. RhetoricPhilosophy. I. Title.
[DNLM: 1. Genes. 2. Language Arts. 3. Persuasive Communication. 4. Science. QU 470
S539h 2008]
QH430.S525 2008
576.5dc22
2007030817
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To my mother Mary M. Shea
and late father Thomas D. Shea
who generously passed on and nurtured
the genes for enjoying the endless
play of figurative language.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ix
1 INTRODUCTION 1
2 GENETIC ORIGIN STORIES 15
3 PRESCRIBING RHETORICAL WORK:
GENETIC THEORIES, GEMMULES, AND GENES 29
4 GENES ON MAIN STREET 49
5 GENES, FIGURES, THINGS, OBJECTS 65
6 FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING: GENES,
SEXUALITY, AND THE AUTHORITY OF SCIENCE 81
7 GENOME: THE SECRET OF HOW
TROPES WORK IN THE LIFE SCIENCES 105
NOTES 125
REFERENCES 129
INDEX 135
Contents
I first glimpsed the gemmule for this book while working on a dissertation
under the direction of S. Michael Halloran. When Michael agreed to serve
as the director of my dissertation committee, he warned me that he was not
an overly directive director. The warning, it turned out, was less a comment
about his work style and more a clue to the powers of persuasion that he
would wield over my views of rhetoric. Just as Wilhelm Johannsen ushered
the gene into language by offering it as a reality designed to resist the imped-
iments of language, Michael Halloran imposed an appreciation of rhetoric by
resisting the impediments of demonstration and direction. And though I cer-
tainly would not presume to persuade him of anything regarding the rhetoric
of the real, I do express my wholehearted gratitude to him for persuading me
to appreciate real rhetoric.
A grant from Northeastern Universitys Research and Scholarship
Development Fund offered me valuable time to conduct research for this
book. I am grateful to two research assistants: Brooke Wittenberg for her help
in sifting through a century of representations of genes in the popular press
and to Michele Braun for tracking down and translating early genetics texts.
Thanks to Sarah Farris for help in keeping the research organized and to Erin
Sunderland for eukaryotic management. Thank you to my friend and former
colleague Eric Iversen for bringing me to the genome exhibit in Washington,
D.C., and for analyzing it with me right there on the spot. Thanks to Ashley
Williams and Allen for turning my attention to the grooves of DNA. Thanks
also to Edward Schiffer for allowing me to benefit from his amazing memory
of popular culture.
Several colloquia series have provided me the opportunities to air earlier
versions of my work and to receive lively, engaging, and extremely helpful
feedback. Thanks to Wenda Bauchspies and the Science and Technology
Studies Program at the Pennsylvania State University; Amy Propen,
Bernadette Longo, Art Walzer, and the members of the Rhetoric Department
at the University of Minnesota; and Sarah Jansen and the Harvard History of
Life Sciences Studies Group.
ix
Acknowledgments
I am very grateful to Larin McLaughlin, Andrew Kenyon, and Laurie
Searl of SUNY Press for all their hard work in bringing this book to press. I
also thank the two anonymous scholars who reviewed the manuscript and
provided me with generative comments for the manuscript.
While writing and revising and writing and revising I have benefited
tremendously from the support, encouragement, and realigning tendencies of
friends, teachers, and colleagues near and far. I thank especially Kristin Bar-
tok, Terese Guinsatao Monberg, John Monberg, Elizabeth DiSalvo, Wenda
Bauchspies, Joe Maguire, Sal Restivo, Steven Katz, Cassandra Jackson, Rekha
Rosha, Lourdes Rodriguez-Nogues, Bill and Anne Leahey, and Ron Decker. I
have also had the great good fortune of having wonderful and supportive col-
leagues in the English department at Northeastern who have offered various
combinations of encouragement, advice, and commiseration along the way;
thanks to Guy Rotella, Susan Wall, Stuart Peterfreund, Tim Donovan,
Patrick Mullen, Laura Green, and Patricia Sullivan. I could not possible have
imaginedand fortunately never had towriting without the font of wis-
dom, delight, and consultation of my dear friends and colleagues Kathleen
Kelly and Marina Leslie. And as for Beth Britt, who has been such a delight-
ful and inspiring presence throughout the entire process of conceptualizing,
writing, revising, and editing, I am flummoxed as to how I could even begin
to thank her. Im thinking, though, of starting with a glass of champagne.
Thanks in countless ways to Joe and Todd and Kristin.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS x
IN A MADE-FOR-TELEVISION courtroom, an attorney approaches the jury
and asks with sardonic smugness: Is DNA really evidence? Gesturing with
her fingers, she places quotes around the word evidence. The members of
the jury absorb the statement with blank expressions.
Within the context of a closing statement in a court of law, the lawyers
gestures call attention to the long-standing tension between a faith in rea-
soned argument and a fear of the slipperiness of rhetoric. In fiction, in tele-
vision, in pop culture, the courtrooms symbolic promise of reason and justice
is often strained by the presence of a lawyer, long a figure of those who use
language and argument to, as Socrates said of the sophists, make the worse
case seem the stronger. From the brief snippet of the lawyers appeal to the
jurya rhetorical question casting doubt on the value of DNAwe can
gather that she is indeed one of those slippery sophistic types, one who is
building her case on the contingencies of language, meaning, and interpre-
tive context. We dont really need to know anything more about the context
of her statement to see that she is being preposterous; she is challenging the
reality and truth-value of DNA within a court of law.
This is not a real courtroom scene. It is the opening scene of a television
commercial. It is only five seconds long. The voiceover, a deep male voice
reverberating with satirical severity, explains to the television audience: For
Jen, truth was relative.
The commercial has nothing to do with genetics or with law (we are left
to our own devices to make any connections we may want to any infamous
court cases involving DNA evidence). It is part of a series of sharply funny
commercials portraying the honest and reliable practices of Washington
Mutual Bank. Each commercial uses absurd little skits to represent a clients
transformation from anxiety to trust, from dishonesty to honesty, or from
miserliness to generosity. In this one, Jen the relativist lawyer is dramatically
transformed from extreme relativism to extreme truthfulness, all from her
experience with a bank where free checking really is free. Before her trans-
formation, Jen is willing to challenge the ultimate truth of DNA. After her
1
1
Introduction
transformation, Jen is so committed to absolute truthfulness that she pulls her
car off the road to tell a police officer that she just changed lanes without sig-
naling and that her license plates are expired.
Despite the virtues of post-transformation Jen and her newfound truth-
fulness, it is pre-transformation Jen who is of interest here. I borrow her
courtroom, and her one-line skit, to introduce my own study of rhetoric and
genetics. What better than a fictionalized courtroom (harking back to a scene
so central to the texts of classical rhetorical theory), made for the ephemeral
world of advertising, to dramatize the lessons we can learn about contempo-
rary rhetoric if we pay attention to genetics. It is really the persistent and
potent antithesis between rhetoric and genetics that can teach us. It can
teach us not only about the way we communicate about genetics, and not
only about the place of genetics in contemporary discourse, but also about the
control and containment of rhetoric in contemporary culture.
The commercial dramatizes the rhetoricgenetics antithesis in the bold
relief of a caricature. The caricature owes its snappiness in part to the ideal-
ized courtroom space, complete with mahogany wood, an impressive jury box,
and a gallery rail marking off the public seating area. But despite the quality
of the set and the quality of the performance, the DNA is what really makes
it work. DNA is a readily available and easily recognized icon of truthper-
fect for just this kind of skit. Replace the DNA with any other kind of evi-
dencewitness testimony, fingerprints, photographs, or telephone records
and the skit just isnt as funny. Every other category of evidence comes with
those prickly problems of context: whats the relationship of the witness to
the defendant? how many other fingerprints were found? how do you demon-
strate the relevance of the fingerprints or the telephone record? In contrast,
DNA readily stands on its own as a context-independent reliable truth.
The commercial takes advantage of the pervasiveness and persuasive-
ness of DNA in contemporary culture, or what Dorothy Nelkin and M.
Susan Lindee have dubbed the DNA mystique and the gene as a cultural
icon. In Jens courtroom, the DNA as metonym of truth and reality
acknowledges, with a big fat wink, the mystique and iconicity of genetic
material. But it is not only the iconic status that is caricatured in the com-
mercial that is worthy of critical attention. It is also the bold antithesis that
is in play. The commercial plays on and enforces the sense of a binary uni-
verse, with lying, a lawyers rhetoric, and relativism on the one side and cer-
tainty, honesty, and genetics on the other. It is this rhetorical workeffi-
ciently laying claim to an authoritative material reality while conjuring a
boundary of immunity from the contingencies of language and rhetoric
that suggests that genes reside comfortably neither in the realm of rhetoric
nor in the realm of rhetoric-free reality. Rather, genes are implicated in the
boundary work of keeping the realms of rhetoric and reality in touch with,
but still separate from, one another. In other words, it is the reiterative
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 2
antithesis of rhetoric and genes that suggests that genes themselves are
worthwhile objects of rhetorical study.
Genes are biological objects: they are implicated in the biological
processes of reproduction, development, disease, and cellular maintenance.
Genes are scientific objects: they are objects (part material, part functional,
part conceptual) that scientists use to study and comprehend genetic, biolog-
ical, and evolutionary processes. Genes are economic objects: they are valu-
able commodities in agriculture, food production, medicine, and pharmaceu-
ticals. Genes are political objects: they are sites of conflict of interests
between privacy concerns and medical research, farming interests and corpo-
rate agriculture, cultural autonomy and population research; they are impli-
cated in family law, criminal investigations, and international law.
Genes are also rhetorical objects. As biological, scientific, economic, and
political objects, genes belong in the realm of rhetoric; that is, they belong in
the realm of deliberation and debate. But it is not only as objects of debate
and deliberation that genes are rhetorical. Within individual texts, genes are
often invoked to close debate, to forestall deliberation, to ward off alternative
interpretations. A mere reference to a gene can itself be a powerful argument,
an appeal to truth, or a claim on greater significance. Thus, by saying that
genes are rhetorical objects, I do not mean simply that we ought to talk about
them, or that we ought to sort through their meanings. Rather, by saying that
genes are rhetorical objects I mean that they do rhetorical work.
In this book, I examine the gene as a rhetorical object. That is, I exam-
ine the gene as a rhetorical invention and as a rhetorical figure. As a rhetor-
ical invention, the gene was designed to do the same kind of work (laying
claim to a reality and immunizing against unwieldy rhetoric) that DNA does
in the courtroom skit of the commercial. As a rhetorical figure, the gene
moves from context to context, adapting to a broad range of rhetorical exi-
gencies (from the highly technical to the intensely political to the ephemeral
and the absurd), carrying with it a capacity for rhetorical work and rhetorical
consequences. As the examples in this book show, not unlike the DNA in the
courtroom skit, the rhetorical consequences of the figure of the gene often
include the assertion of boundaries, with authoritative knowledge on one side
and playful language, stylistic devices, and rhetoric on the other.
The texts that I examine in this book include peer-reviewed scientific
texts and popular-press articles, or what some might consider serious texts
and fluffy or ephemeral texts. The scientific texts are the ones that aspire to
a certain kind of literalism while the popular-press texts are free to stretch
around in a kind of playful figuralism. Unlike the scientific texts, the popu-
lar-press accounts of genes (especially the headlines) are not constrained by
any need to avoid accusations of being too figurative. Still, in both kinds of
textsin the ostensibly literal and the openly figurativewe can see the
work of the figure of the gene.
INTRODUCTION 3
I should say upfront that the goal of this book is not to evaluate the sci-
entific legitimacy of any literal or figurative use of genetic language. Though
the scientific legitimacy of particular language usage is not irrelevant to the
analysis, the primary focus of this book is the rhetorical work of both literal
and figurative uses of genetic language. In this book I am most concerned
with paying close attention to the figurative and rhetorical work of genes and
with using genes to learn to pay closer attention to figurative work in general.
As Jens skit with DNA in the courtroom suggests, this book is especially con-
cerned with attending to the rhetorical work of fixing a sense of a reliable
material truth and the rhetorical work of asserting boundaries between truth
and rhetoric.
SOME MATTERS OF DEFI NI TI ON
So far, I have slipped around a bit with references to DNA, genetic material,
and genes. These terms are not synonymous. For the most part, this book is
more concerned with the rhetorical work of the gene as a figure than it is
concerned with the persuasiveness of deoxyribonucleic acid. This is not to
say that genes and DNA are not related. They are related. Very closely
related. But the relationship between the two terms, and between the refer-
ents of the two terms, is anything but fixed and static.
DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. As a name, it is fairly straight-
forward. It designates a distinct biochemical substance that is found in the
nuclei of cells. Grammatically, in its literal form, DNA is a concrete noun.
The gene is harder to define. It is semiotically tricky. In chapter three, I
examine in detail the initial naming of the gene to show that when the gene
was first named in 1909 it was not so much defined as it was established as a
rhetorical figurea figure for expressing a genetic concept as a material
thing. After the name gene was introduced, geneticists grappled with its
meaning and debated the nature of its signified (was it best to think of it as a
material thing? a function? a concept? just a word?) (Vicedo). The material,
functional, and conceptual associations have changed dramatically over the
last century. But there has never been one singular precise definition or sense
of what genes actually are. There is still no one sense of the term that really
fixes it in a category of material thing, function, or concept.
Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, in their effort to demystify the power of
genes in public discourse, summarize the different uses and definitions of the
term:
But what are genes? Different kinds of biologists have answered the ques-
tion in different ways. To molecular biologists, a gene is a stretch of DNA
that specifies the composition of a protein and may affect whether and at
what rate that protein is synthesized, as well as sometimes affecting the syn-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 4
thesis of proteins specified by nearby genes. To geneticists, genes are parts
of our chromosomes that mediate heritable characteristics or traits. To pop-
ulation biologists, genes are units of difference that can be used to distin-
guish various members of a population from each other. To evolutionary
biologists, genes are historical records of the changes organisms have
undergone over time. All these definitions overlap and complement each
other, and which one a particular scientist focuses on simply depends on
her or his interest. (11)
In other words, the meaning of the term depends on the context of its use.
But the gene as a stretch of DNA and the gene as a unit of difference
(and the gene as a persuasive cultural icon, for that matter) are not simply
homonyms. As Hubbard and Wald say, the definitions overlap and com-
plement. They need one another. It is important to each of the disciplinary
domains that the gene of the molecular biologist is understood to be, on
some level, the same thing as the gene of the evolutionary biologist. But,
then again, it is important that the evolutionary biologists definition of the
gene not be constrained by the definition of the molecular biologists. As
Snustad et al. put it in their college-level textbook, Principles of Genetics:
The definition of the gene needs to remain somewhat pliable if it is to
encompass all of the different structure/function relationships that occur in
different organisms (352).
In chapter five, I consider the pliability of the term and the comple-
mentarity of definitions in terms of the theoretical concepts of boundary
objects (Star and Griesemer) and epistemic things (Rheinberger). These two
theoretical concepts, drawn from the fields of science studies and the history
of science, help to account for the power of the gene in the social construc-
tion of scientific knowledge. Combined with focused analysis of the gene as
a rhetorical figure (drawing on Jeanne Fahnestocks analysis of figures in sci-
ence), the concepts also contribute to an understanding of the rhetorical
power of a scientific object in scientific and nonscientific arguments.
RHETORI CAL FI GURES AND CULTURAL I CONS
Tracking the meanings of genes across disciplines, rhetorical contexts, and
historic periods can be a fascinating and head-spinning adventure. It is not
what this book does. A reader expecting an analysis of the relationships
between meaning and context will likely be frustrated by my analysis. I am
certainly not dismissing the importance of the interdependence of meaning
and context, especially when it comes to scientific meaning. But the fluctu-
ation of meanings of genes is the backdrop for this book, the backdrop that,
I hope, helps to illuminate the work of rhetorical figurings. Its not that
genes are rhetorical because their meanings are contingent and context
INTRODUCTION 5
dependent. Rather, it is because they have an uncanny ability to project a
sense of being so undeniably real and so undeniably true that they appear to
stand outside the influences of rhetoric, immune to the contingency of lan-
guage, meaning, and interpretive context, that genes are worth paying
attention to rhetorically.
To pay attention to genes rhetorically, I examine the figurative work that
they do within particular texts. Close readings show that while the specific
meanings of genes may fluctuate and be difficult to get a grip on (and may
require backgrounds in molecular biology, evolution, classical genetics, and
pharmaceutical research), the figurative work of genes (claiming an authori-
tative material reality and suggesting immunity to the contingency of lan-
guage and meaning) is consistent, predictable, and consequential. Just as the
biological work of genes takes place at the molecular level, not in the back-
ground of its evolutionary context, the rhetorical work of genes takes place at
the textual level, not in the background of its cultural and semiotic context.
I share Carole Blairs concern that rhetoric studies has tended to
attribute the status of the real and the status of the material to a texts con-
text or to the setting of rhetoric, rather than to the text itself. In her essay
Contemporary U.S. Memorial Sites as Exemplars of Rhetorics Materiality,
Blair takes public memorials as an opportunity to create openings for rethink-
ing rhetoric as consequential and substantial. With memorials as exemplars,
Blair argues for the importance of understanding the rhetorical work of texts.
Instead of stopping at the plane of symbolism and meaning, she demonstrates
the importance of asking what texts do and how they act. Blair argues that
contemporary rhetoric studies has been hindered by the dominance of what
she calls the language of symbolicity. While understanding texts as sym-
bolic and meaningful is a major component of rhetoric studies, limiting
rhetoricity to symbolicity amounts to shortchanging the potential of rhetoric
studies. As Blair puts it:
There are some things that rhetorics symbolicity simply cannot account for.
One is its consequence. Even if we were to accomplish the impossible and
catalogue the range of meanings referenced by a symbolic formulation, we
would not therefore be in any better position than when we began to
account for its consequence in use. And if rhetoric is, as I have suggested,
defined in part by its potential for consequence, then there is a problem in
understanding rhetoric as essentially symbolic. (19)
I am influenced by Blairs initiative of turning to the text itself as rhetor-
ical (i.e., substantial, consequential, meaningful, and partisan) in examining
the gene as a rhetorical object. The symbolic vitality of the gene is the start-
ing point, or the impetus, for examining the gene as itself rhetorical. Like
Blairs memorials, genes offer openings for rethinking rhetoric. A significant
chunk of the range of meanings has been catalogued by geneticists, his-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 6
torians, rhetorical critics, and scholars in science studies and cultural studies.
1
But, as Blair suggests, the catalogue of meaning is not an account of the con-
sequences of its use. Still, understanding how the gene figure can traverse
such a broad range of meaning while preserving its potential for asserting
authoritative claims can lead to an understanding of how scientific objects
function rhetorically.
This study, examining genes as opportunities for rethinking rhetoric, can
be seen as complementing semiotic studies of genes that have been produced
by scholars in science studies, gender studies, and history, as well as in
rhetoric since the early 1990s.
2
I alluded to that complementarity earlier,
when describing a commercial skit in terms of DNA as a cultural icon and in
terms of the rhetorical work of DNA in staking out a claim on an authorita-
tive reality as an antithesis to the contingencies of rhetoric. Because it lays
the groundwork for rhetorical readings of genes in both popular and scientific
contexts, it is worth recounting the details of Nelkin and Lindees landmark
study, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon. I consider it here, both
for citing the insights that the study provides and for identifying where my
own study of the rhetoric of genes branches off from a study of the meanings
of genes.
In their 1995 study (reissued in 2004), Nelkin and Lindee analyze the
powerful symbolic life of genes in contemporary culture, characterizing that
symbolic power as the DNA mystique and the gene as a cultural icon.
Their study, examining DNA and genes in the texts of popular culture
(including advertisements, cartoons, novels, and films, as well as news and
public controversies), shows quite emphatically that genetic representations
owe their symbolic vitality and cultural significance as much to the narratives,
cultural tensions, and social values with which they converse as to the mater-
ial qualities and biological significance of DNA. For Nelkin and Lindee, DNA
has become an object to think with, a malleable idea by means of which dif-
ferent interpretive communities can express diverse, even contradictory con-
cerns. Further, the gene is a powerful and convenient trope:
The gene is . . . a symbol, a metaphor; a convenient way to define person-
hood, identity, and relationships in socially meaningful ways. The gene is
used, of course, to explain health and disease. But it is also a way to talk
about guilt and responsibility, power and privilege, intellectual or emo-
tional status. It has become a supergene, used to judge the morality or
rightness of social systems and to explore the forces that will shape the
human future. (16)
Nelkin and Lindees study, initiated in the early 1990s, was both situated
in and at least partially motivated by a growing wariness of genetic essential-
ism and an increasing concern about the allure of deterministic and essen-
tializing arguments in popular culture. They note that the appeal of genetic
INTRODUCTION 7
essentialism in American society reflects the close relationships between
prevailing theories of nature and cultural conceptions of social order. Percep-
tions of the natural order have often reproduced, and then justified, social
arrangements and the status of the geneas a deterministic agent, a blue-
print, a basis for social relations, and a source of good and evilpromises a
reassuring certainty, order, predictability, and control (199200).
Nelkin and Lindee do not disregard authoritative definitions of genes
(i.e., those that are officiated and controlled within scientific discourse com-
munities), nor do they dismiss the biological (and economic) significance of
the material functions of DNA. But, to Nelkin and Lindee, neither the sci-
entific meaning nor the biological functions of genes determines the sym-
bolic meaning of genes in popular culture.
3
The cultural meanings, within
this perspective, can be examined separately from the scientific meanings.
Like Nelkin and Lindee, I am intrigued by the persuasiveness and cul-
tural power of genes. I agree that the iconicity of the gene is not only an
interesting cultural phenomenon but ought to stand as an open invitation for
critical reading. But the gene is an authoritative figure, both within science
and within popular culture, that resists critical readings of its meanings and
can lend a sense of authority and significance to the arguments in which it
appears. Though the meanings of genes change dramatically from context to
context, the potential for the rhetorical work of genes is much more consis-
tent across contexts. Thus, with an appreciation for the catalogue of range of
meanings that Nelkin and Lindee have established, and with a shared con-
cern for the persuasive powers of gene talk, I turn in this book to reconnect
the iconic gene with the scientific gene.
Rather than separating meanings in scientific and popular contexts, I fol-
low the rhetorical work of the gene across rhetorical contexts, from its incep-
tion in an argument about language and knowledge, through scientific argu-
ments, and to its work in the contemporary popular press. The word gene
was first introduced by Danish scientist, Wilhelm Johannsen. He introduced
the term in a 1906 textbook as part of a new set of terminology designed to
clarify the study of heredity in plants and animals. In 1909, he prepared a
speech for the American Society of Naturalists in which he made an
extended argument for the gene and the related terms. The speech, ostensi-
bly a case for Johannsens genotype conception of heredity, can also be read
as an extended argument about the problems of language, figurative speech,
and the control of knowledge.
It is in the context of Johannsens speech that we can see that the gene
was, first and foremost, a rhetorical invention, designed to lay claim to a
material reality (without actually specifying that reality) and to dissociate
that material reality from the problems of language, conjecture, and rhetori-
cal uncertainty. Though he introduces genes to be treated as units of mater-
ial reality, Johannsen emphatically avoids defining or positing any particular
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 8
attributes of their materiality. In fact, the closest thing to a definition of genes
in Johannsens text is an assertion of their reality and an admonition of any
premature attempts to hypothesize about their physical nature. Johannsen
prescribed for the gene the task of figuring a material reality immune to the
uncertainties of language and rhetoric; it is this prescribed function that I
trace in the book as the genes rhetorical work.
The gene then becomes an object to think with for rhetoric studies, for
examining persuasive scientific objects as not only meaningful but also as
themselves rhetorical. Genes are rhetorical not only because they are mean-
ingful and not only because they are invoked in arguments, but because they
were designed to function rhetorically in a very particular waya particular
way in relation to categories of certainty, reality, contingency, and rhetoric-
ity. The gene as a rhetorical object has consequences for how we understand
the relationship between rhetoric and reality. That is, the gene, at work in
specific texts and specific arguments, has consequences for the way rhetoric
and reality are configured in relation to one another. As an object to think
with for rhetoric studies, the work of the gene can show us that the boundary
between rhetoric and reality is always up for rhetorical negotiation.
DOES THE GENE REALLY HAVE A GROOVE?
I have a weakness for cutesy playful titles, especially those that do the fig-
urative work of epitomizing an argument. The title of this book is no excep-
tion. Its a bit cutesy. And a bit playful. And, it epitomizes an argumentan
argument about the figurative relationships among the materiality of genes,
the complex history of the gene as a scientific object, and the gene as an
authoritative scientific and cultural icon. And an argument about the impor-
tance of paying attention to the play of language, especially in relation to sci-
entific objects.
The title changed its meaning while I was preparing the book. Early on,
intrigued by the persuasiveness of the gene as a cultural icon and astounded
by the complexity surrounding the simple question what is a gene?, I
became attached to How the Gene Got Its Groove as a title figure. I had a
hard time resisting an alliteration of gs that could join the scientific serious-
ness of the gene with the somewhat campy, pop-culture sense of a groove.
But, it wasnt long before I discovered that I had stumbled onto a pun. It turns
out that there are physical grooves associated with genes. The structure of the
double helix has two grooves spiraling around the outside of the DNA mole-
cule: the major groove and the minor groove. It is in the grooves that pro-
teins interact with the base pairs of DNA and effectively pick up the genetic
information of genes, translating that information into protein action. So,
the groove is a name for part of the shape of the molecule, a part of the shape
that has consequences for understanding the biological work of DNA.
INTRODUCTION 9
The groove of the double helix is not quite the kind of groove I was
thinking about when I got seduced by the question of how the gene got its
groove. But as a distinct physical characteristic of DNA, it provides a delight-
fully serendipitous pun. It is a pun with a purpose, a purpose relating to the
role of rhetorical figuration in scientific realism.
Kenneth Burke described scientific realism in terms of the figurative
work of metonymy. The basis strategy in metonymy, he expains, is to con-
vey some incorporeal or intangible state in terms of the corporeal or tangi-
ble . . . Metonymy is a device of poetic realismbut its partner, reduction,
is a device of scientific realism (506). Poetic realism relies on metonymy as
an idiom of expression, or as a figure that calls attention to itself as a figure
and is to be taken figuratively. In contrast, scientific realism relies on
metonymy as a substantial reduction, or a figure that is not to be recognized
as a figure and is to be taken literally.
If there is ever a trope that works primarily to call attention to rhetori-
cal play, it is a pun. Puns are often the most embarrassing of the tropes
because they do not seem to have any communicative purpose; they have no
capacity to convey the substance of a matter. Puns are a far cry from the mas-
ter tropes that can slip unnoticed between the realm of the overtly figurative
to the realm of the literal or realistic.
The pun of the groove is intended to be cutesy (and maybe a bit embar-
rassing) but is also intended to call attention to the figurative play of scien-
tific objects. The groove of the genethat is, the persuasiveness of the gene
as a scientific figure and as a cultural iconis not unrelated to the groove of
DNAthat is, the functional structure of the double helix. But the link
between the two can not be explained in terms of a simple metonymic or
causal relationship. The link is tangled up in figurations, narratives, and argu-
ments. Thus, I hope that the bad pun of the title can serve to make us a lit-
tle bit uncomfortable (in the ways that puns do) when we start feeling the
pull of attributing the groove of the gene to the material structure of DNA.
OVERVI EW OF CHAPTERS
Chapter Two. Genetic Origin Stories
Many rhetorical studies of scientific texts begin with a historical context to
make a case for the scientific and rhetorical significance of the texts (see, for
example, Halloran and Bradford 1984, Gross 1990, Selzer 1993, Ceccarelli
2001). But because the naming of the gene is not often treated as a concep-
tual breakthrough in the history of genetics and because the text in which
Johannsen names the gene upholds a historical view that diminishes the sci-
entific and rhetorical significance of the naming, I begin by troubling the
relationship between the origin of the gene and the commonly told origin
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 10
narrative of genetics. Gregor Mendel is often cited as a founder of genetics
and is sometimes cited as an originator of the concept of the gene. Indeed,
Johannsen calls upon Mendelism as an argument for asserting the reality of
his gene. In this chapter I review Mendels nineteenth-century work in
light of the twentieth-century concept of the gene, which is often projected
back onto it, and examine the making of the origin narrative that figures
Mendel as the founder of genetics. Thus, rather than providing a context that
illuminates the historical significance of the gene, I examine the history of
the genetic origin narrative for insight into the genes resistance to history.
Chapter Three. Prescribing Rhetorical Work:
Genetic Theories, Gemmules, and Genes
This chapter presents the analysis of Johannsens address to the American
Society of Naturalists in which he makes an extended argument for his spe-
cialized vocabulary, figures the gene as a material thing, and prescribes the
rhetorical work for the gene. In the address, Johannsen makes a case for sep-
arating scientific language from everyday language, managing the precision of
specialized terminology, and protecting scientific language from the rhetori-
cal contaminations of figurative language, dialectical reasoning, fiction, pre-
tending, and speculations taken as fact. Johannsens articulation of the gene
and the genotype theory is as much about controlling rhetoric as it is about
shaping genetic theories.
To illuminate the rhetorical work that Johannsen prescribed for the
gene, I also examine Charles Darwins argument for his hypothesis of pange-
nesis. Darwin, in presenting his hypothesis, introduces his notion of gem-
mules, which in contrast to Johannsens genes are overtly hypothetical and
rhetorical. As an instance of scientific rhetoric that emphasizes its own sta-
tus as hypothetical and figures a conceptual unit as primarily rhetorical, Dar-
wins pangenesis argument offers an illustrative point of contrast for seeing
the rhetorical work of Johannsens gene.
Chapter Four. Genes on Main Street
This chapter takes its name from the title of an article published in Time in
1934. The article quotes Dr. Calvin Blackman Bridges as saying that genes
would soon be as easily located as the houses on Main Street. Though
geneticists perspectives on what a gene actually was (and perspectives on
whether what a gene actually was even mattered) varied considerably, Amer-
ican popular-press articles of the 1930s and 1940s indicate that the gene
was becoming part of an everyday vocabulary, often serving as a name for a
scientific object that was on the verge of becoming a material reality. This
chapter provides a brief overview of pre-1950s geneticists views on genes and
then analyzes the rhetorical work of genes in magazine texts. The analysis
INTRODUCTION 11
focuses primarily on two magazine articles published during the cold war
period. The articles contrast breakthroughs in American genetics research
with reports of propaganda regarding Soviet science, Soviet agriculture,
and T. D. Lysenkos denunciation of the gene concept. The articles are brief
and rely on the gene figured as a material fact to assert an antithesis between
Western society, grounded in the ethos of scientific rationality (with genes as
foundational elements), and communism, grounded instead in propaganda
and unreliable rhetoric (with genes declared to be figments of capitalist
imaginations).
With an understanding of the uncertainty and controversy surrounding
the material reality of genes within the scientific community at the time,
popular press claims of genes on the verge of discovery and on the verge of
visibility (with the assistance of electron micrographs) seem, at best, out-
landishly oversimplified and, at worst, irresponsible science reporting. But
the genes in the popular press are also doing the work that was originally
prescribed for the figure of the gene. That is, they are functioning as mater-
ial facts and asserting a boundary between genetic reality and problematic
unreliable rhetoric. Emphasizing the rhetorical work of genes in a rhetorical
context removed from a specialized scientific discourse community, the chap-
ter suggests that although the meanings of the gene in popular discourse may
be removed from the meanings of the gene in scientific discourse, the rhetori-
cal work of the gene figure is consistent across popular and scientific contexts.
Further, this chapter suggests that understanding the work of genes as rhetor-
ical figures contributes to an understanding of the cultural work of genes as
authoritative figures.
Chapter Five. Genes, Figures, Things, Objects
This chapter draws on theories of rhetorical figures in science, boundary
objects in the social production of knowledge, and epistemic things in the his-
tory of science in order to theorize the gene as a rhetorical object. The theo-
retical perspectives from rhetoric studies, social studies of science, and the his-
tory of science help to illuminate the knowledge-making significance of the
gene as a figure within social ecologies of knowledge and provide a frame-
work for examining the rhetorical work of a scientific object as it moves across
texts and contexts. The chapter includes a reading of the rhetorical function
of genes within James Watson and Francis Cricks famous papers identifying
the molecular structure of DNA. These papers are landmark texts in the mid-
century transformation of the gene as a scientific object. By calling attention
to the rhetorical work of the gene in such landmark texts, the analysis shows
the inseparability of the rhetorical and epistemic functions of genes.
With the previous chapters focusing on figurings of the gene and in
preparation for examining the figurative work of genes in the chapters that
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 12
follow, this chapter addresses the difficulty of answering the question of what
a literal gene really is. Though the discovery of the structure of DNA solved
many questions about how genes work to reproduce themselves, it also
opened up many more questions about the nature and function of genes.
Today, specific definitions of genes depend on disciplinary and discursive
contexts. In other words, there is no singular definition of the gene that
stands still as a literal counterpart to the figurative genes of popular culture.
As an alternative to looking for a literal gene, and rather than trusting that
literal genes exist elsewhere, I turn to theories of boundary objects and
epistemic things which provide a handle for accounting for the extraordi-
nary power of genes as both scientific things and rhetorical things.
Chapter Six. Figuratively Speaking:
Genes, Sexuality, and the Authority of Science
This chapter examines examples of gay genes in the popular press and peer-
reviewed scientific texts from the 1990s. In the chapter, I bracket questions
of the reality or scientific legitimacy of these popular and politically con-
tentious genes. Instead I examine how the genes, or rather the genes (as
they are most commonly introduced with scare quotes), are figured within
the texts and how they in turn work to figure the authority of scientific and
deterministic discourse. I pay close attention in this chapter to boundaries of
literalism and figurative play. That is, I examine how such boundaries are
assumed and asserted, how the boundaries figure genes, and, just as impor-
tant, how genes work in the text to figure the boundaries.
The bracketing of the question of the legitimacy and/or reality of partic-
ular genes is important to the work of this chapter. For, to evaluate these genes
on whether or not they are real or stand up to scientific standards is to miss
the persuasive rhetorical and cultural work that they do. And, again, the work
that they do in straddling a boundary of literal and figurative discourse res-
onates with the rhetorical work that the gene was originally designed to do.
Chapter Six. Genome: The Secret of
How Tropes Work in the Life Sciences
This chapter analyzes a museum exhibit, Genome: The Secret of How Life
Works, that has been traveling to cities in the United States since 2003. The
exhibit is a celebration of the science of genetics. It stages basic lessons of
biology and genetics in an interactive atmosphere in which visitors are
invited to engage with material forms of the metaphors and figures of the
genome (e.g., the book of life, the cell as a manufacturing center, the
secret of life). By inviting visitors to play with the figures, the exhibit offers
a kind of training in the importance of stylistic devices in science. But it also
imposes guidelines and displays the limits of rhetorical play. Analyzing the
INTRODUCTION 13
figurative play and the boundaries of figurative play, this chapter extends the
discussion of genes and the rhetorical work of genes in maintaining rhetori-
cal boundaries.
The exhibition is actually divided into two parts: one that showcases
metaphors and figurative play and one that showcases the benefits of genetic
engineering and the promise of genomic research for medicine and pharma-
ceutical development. These two parts occupy two separate spaces that are
joined by a passageway labeled Living on the Frontier. In passing from the
figurative play room to the frontier, visitors leave behind the playful
metaphors and stylistic devices and enter a zone of literalism where scientific
realism is asserted both implicitly and explicitly.
I conclude the book at the constructed boundary of the genomic frontier.
This constructed boundary, separating two parts of an exhibition on the
genome, one part openly figurative the other appealing to literalism, offers a
figure for the study of the rhetoric of science. That is, to address the author-
itative claims of rhetoric in science and rhetoric about science, it is not
enough to identify and analyze figurative devices; we also need to stay tuned
to the boundary asserted between, on the one side, the figurative and the
rhetorical and, on the other side, the literal and the real.
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 14
IN HIS 1995 popular defense of a Darwinian view of life, Richard Dawkins
presents the logic of natural selection with the vivid image of a river of genes.
It is a river, Dawkins explains, that flows not through space but through time,
linking us to an unbroken line of successful ancestors (2). In this river-of-
genes view of life and evolution, each generation (of humans, of animals, or
of plants) is a sieve that allows the good genes, but not the bad genes, to pass
through. The genes, for the most part, remain unchanged from generation to
generation. Though the specific course is not fully predictable, the flow of
genes is inevitable.
The river of genes, or as Dawkins titles it the River Out of Eden, is a
compelling origin narrative, a grand history of life that exploits a common
sense of genes as material, as inevitable, and as the ultimate driving force of
life. In this sense, genes are stubbornly ahistorical. Genes simply are and
always have been.
When genes are figured as undeniably real and undeniably material they
can work beautifully in origin narratives. They work beautifully in human
histories, like Dawkins, as well is in histories of science. The genes can sim-
ply flow through time with histories unfolding around them. Genes, in this
sense, are not subject to the influence of history; history is subject to the
influence of genes.
But this sense of genes as being so undeniably real that they can stand
outside the influence of story telling, outside the influence of rhetoric, out-
side the influence of history actually has its own historical origin. Or at least
its own rhetorical origin. The original configuring of the gene as a claim on
the real is the subject of the next chapter. This chapter addresses the prob-
lem of situating the figuring of the gene in a historical context. I call this a
problem of historical context, in part, because situating a rhetorical event is
rather tricky when the rhetorical consequences of the event include a certain
resistance to history. But I also call it a problem with reference to the endur-
ing entanglement of history and rhetoric: accounts of the past and arguments
from the past are so hopelessly entwined with one another that setting one
15
2
Genetic Origin Stories
against the other, as if they could ever be separate enough for that, is always
somewhat problematic. The entanglement of history and rhetoric is particu-
larly gnarly within and around the original argument for and configuration of
the gene. Wilhelm Johannsens powerful argument for the reality of the gene
rests on both an elaborately constructed case for the control of rhetoric and
on claims to a conceptual foundation that is suggestive of a particular version
of the history of genetics.
As we will see throughout the next chapter, the foundation that
Johannsen appealed to for his claims that the gene is in fact a real thing, even
though its particulars were not yet known, is Mendelism. For example, in his
1910 address to the American Society of Naturalists, he explains: As to the
nature of the genes it is as yet of no value to propose any hypothesis; but that
the notion gene covers a reality is evident from Mendelism (1323). This
appeal to Mendelism is sustained throughout the address. Johannsen is not
making an explicit historical argument nor is he asserting a direct lineage
from Gregor Mendels then forty-year old (and now legendary) experiments
to his own proposed concept for the gene. Rather, he is citing the increasingly
accepted foundation of Mendelism as support for both his theory and his
proposed vocabulary. Still, it is tempting, when we read Johannsens address
a century later, to see it as a window onto its own past, and to interpret the
appeal to Mendelism as evidence of a fairly straightforward history of con-
cepts that begins with the work of Mendel.
Though Johannsen does not explicitly assert a historical narrative,
when we look back at his text, it does seem to confirm one of the most com-
monly told origin narratives for the field of genetics. That is, it confirms the
story, often told in textbooks and popular accounts, that goes something like
this: In the 1860s Mendel, an Augustinian monk, was toiling away all alone
in his monastery garden, pursuing the mysteries of heredity, when he dis-
covered the principles of genetics. And though he did publish his results, it
took almost forty years before the scientific community would appreciate
Mendels work. In 1900, when Mendels work was rediscovered, the field
of genetics was born.
The telling of this origin narrative often gets rather creative around the
issue of genes, especially around the relationship between what Mendel did
and what genes are. In their 1997 textbook, Introduction to Genetic Analysis,
Anthony J. F. Griffiths et al. introduce the study of genetics and provide a ter-
rific example of a creative version of the familiar origin narrative:
First we need to define what genetics is. . . . Genetics as a set of principles
and analytical procedures did not begin until the 1860s when an Augustin-
ian monk named Gregor Mendel performed a set of experiments that
pointed to the existence of biological elements called genes. The word
genetics comes from genes, and genes provide the focus for this subject.
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 16
Whether geneticists study at the molecular, cellular, organismal, family,
population, or evolutionary level, genes are always central in their studies.
Simply stated, genetics is about genes. (3)
Note that, just as in Dawkins account of the origins of life, in this
account of the origins of genetics, genes are the fundamental elements of the
story. And they are oddly ahistorical. If we read the above passage quickly
enough we might be able to walk away with the impression that Mendel dis-
covered genes. But it doesnt actually say that. In the nuanced language of the
passage, Mendels experiments are pointing to the existence of genes. Then,
genes are transformed into the foundational elements of the study of genet-
ics, by virtue of the word gene being the origin, or root, of the word genet-
ics. The Oxford English Dictionary, though, cites the first use of the word
geneticsin the sense of the scientific study of heredity and variation as
occurring in 1905, four years before Johannsen introduced his term gene.
Further, the word genetic was in circulation since at least 1831, defined pri-
marily as pertaining to, or having reference to origin.
The Oxford English Dictionary could be an authoritative stick useful for
tripping any scientist who attempts to ground an origin narrative in an ille-
gitimate etymological lineage. Or, it could simply provide an inertial frame
for noticing genetic origin narratives and the place of genes in those narra-
tives. The rather innocent etymological switch illuminates the metonymic
function of genesgrounding abstract concepts in the existence of biologi-
cal elementsand calls attention to the close interdependence (and some-
times confusion) of the narrative force of a history of genetics and the rhetor-
ical work of genes.
Actually, the scientist who named the field genetics is also the one
who is most responsible for laying the ground for conflating the history of the
gene with the history of Mendelism. William Bateson proposed the name
genetics at a conference that he had organized around the theme of
Mendelism. By the time of the conference, Bateson had been promoting the
importance of Mendels work for several years. In part, he was captivated by
the explanatory power of Mendels work. But Mendels work also gave Bate-
son a much-needed lever in what had become a rather contentious debate
with the biometricians, a group of British scientists who embraced Darwin-
ism as their foundation. Bateson was opposed to both the methods of the bio-
metricians and the stronghold of Darwinism in the study of heredity.
In what follows, I present a brief account of Mendels experiments. I focus
specifically on the relationship between Mendels published account of his
experiments and the twentieth-century developments of Mendelism and the
gene. Next, I turn to the work that William Bateson did, while embroiled in sci-
entific debate and institutional struggles, to install Mendel as the founding
father of genetics. Finally, I end the chapter with a description of the conference,
GENETIC ORIGIN STORIES 17
dedicated to the theme of Mendelism, where the field of genetics acquired its
name and its historically grounded identity. At that conference, presenting
research that simultaneously supports Mendelism and carries on Batesons argu-
ment against the biometricians, is the namer of the gene, Wilhelm Johannsen.
MENDEL S EXPERI MENTS
In his experiments, Mendel focused on what he called differentiating charac-
teristics. What he observed of differentiating characteristics can now be
explained in terms of genes. But he did not present his results as if he had dis-
covered differentiating characteristics. Rather, the differentiating characteris-
tics were an integral part of his method. By observing the characteristics and
tracking them through generations, he was able to make claims about pat-
terns of heredity, the genetic stability of hybrids, and the possibilities about
the transformation and change of a plants species.
Mendel worked with populations of pea plants, which he initially sorted
and segregated by pairs of differentiating characteristics. These characteristics
were observable physical traits, such as flower color and seed shape, which
had clear and distinct differences. That is, the flowers were either violet or
white. The seeds were either smooth or wrinkled. The differentiating char-
acteristics did not differ by matters of degree; they were not, as Mendel put it,
differences of more or less. Rather, in order to be useful for the purposes of
the experiments, the characteristics needed to be clearly differentiated; they
needed to be either one form or another.
The experiments consisted of crossbreeding the plants of differentiating
characteristics with one another. Violet-flower plants were crossed with white-
flower plants. Smooth-seed plants were crossed with wrinkled-seed plants.
What Mendel found was that the pairs of differentiated characteristics each
followed a rule of dominance. In the offspring plants, one form occurred more
frequently than the other. Violet flowers dominated over white; smooth seeds
dominated over wrinkled. And, always with a ratio of about three to one.
1
In hindsight, Mendels rule of dominance can be explained in terms of
genes. Each plant has two genesone from each parent plantthat together
determine flower color. The gene for violet flowers is dominant and the gene for
white flowers is recessive. That means that if a plant has inherited one of each,
a violet-flower gene and a white-flower gene, the plants flowers will be violet.
But Mendel did not describe his observations of the rule of dominance
in terms of genes. Nor did he speculate about the internal mechanisms that
could help account for the patterns of observable characteristics. In his paper,
he carefully details the rules according to which the differentiating charac-
teristics appeared in successive generations. The rules are consistent with
what we now know as the logic of genes. Yet, Mendels notations and termi-
nology do not allow for a distinction between observable traits (violet flow-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 18
ers) and inherited factors (genes for violet flowers). Mendels analysis and dis-
cussion stay, quite literally, on the observable surface of the plants. The pat-
terns are suggestive, especially in hindsight, that there may be something
beneath the surface that could explain them. But Mendel does not attempt
to address what may be beneath the surface; he focuses on the patterns and
the consistencies, or rules, of the patterns. As Mendel explains it in his pub-
lished results, The object of the experiment was to observe these variations
in the case of each pair of differentiating characters, and to deduce the law
according to which they appear in the successive generations (11).
The twentieth-century terms for distinguishing between observable traits
and inherited factors are phenotype and genotype. As we will see in the next
chapter, it is Wilhelm Johannsen who established the phenotypegenotype
distinction. He defines phenotype as All types of organisms, distinguishable
by direct inspection or only by finer methods of measuring description, may
be characterized as phenotypes (134). The genotype, then, is the comple-
ment to the phenotype and is, as Johannsen puts it, the sum total of all the
genes in a gamete or in a zygote (132133).
Mendels descriptions of the pea plants are all phenotypic: flower color,
height, seed shape, and so on. Any genotypic explanation of Mendels exper-
iments is a matter of projecting twentieth-century terms and concepts back
onto the earlier work. Mendels published acount of his experiments is rather
dense and complicated. It is tempting to read it as an elaborate work-around
of a missing vocabulary. That is, it is tempting to say that because he does not
have the terms that allow him to differentiate between the phenotype and the
genotype, his explanation of the patterns of heredity is much more compli-
cated than it could be. But historian Robert Olby shows that even such a read-
ing, redescribing Mendels work in the vocabulary of the twentieth century, is
grounded more in the myth of Mendel as foundational figure than in the
actual project and conclusions of Mendel. Mendel did not have a conception
of pairs of factors or elements determining his pairs of contrasted characters
(67). In fact, Mendel expressed no concern for determining factors, causal
agents, or mechanisms of heredity. Mendels overriding concern was with the
role of hybrids in the genesis of new species. Are hybrids variable or con-
stant?for if constant they might mark the first stage in the genesis of new
species (67). Thus, as Olby shows, if we hold Mendel up to the test of artic-
ulating a twentieth-century conception of Mendelism, based on his published
paper, it appears that he missed some of the central tenets of Mendelism.
In An Introduction to the Historiography of Science, Helge Kragh suggests
that to fully appreciate the origins of the field of genetics and Mendels con-
tributions, we need to recognize two MendelsMendel of the twentieth cen-
tury and Mendel of his own time (106107).
2
The twentieth-century Mendel
(or the Mendel viewed anachronically) provides valuable insights into the
history of the principles of genes (106107). The nineteenth-century Mendel
GENETIC ORIGIN STORIES 19
(the Mendel viewed diachronically), however, presents valuable insights into
the history of plant breeding, hybridization experiments, and the study of the
stability of species.
In describing Mendels contribution in a diachronical context, Kragh
identifies it as a rather orthodox contribution to the plant improvement tra-
dition in botanical research (106). We can see Mendels rather conventional
approach to contributing to a scientific conversation in his publication
Experiments in Plant Hybridisation. In the paper, Mendel articulates the
significance of his experimental work by situating it amid nineteenth-century
research on plant fertilization, hybridization, and the transformation of plant
species. The research that Mendel references is primarily the work of
botanists who had also experimented with large numbers of plants and had
addressed questions of species stability, transformation (or evolution) of
forms, hybridization, and the recurrence of forms generations after they
seemed to have disappeared.
3
The significance of Mendels work in the context of the eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century practices of experimental plant breeding is addressed by
L. C. Dunn in A Short History of Genetics. Dunn argues that the experimen-
tal botanists, in pursuing questions concerning the nature of species in plants,
the variation of forms in hybrids and sequential generations of hybrids, and
the extent to which hybrid plant offspring could revert to the forms of the
parent generation in later generations, were building a broad understanding
of the phenomena that Mendel characterized. Several botanists had observed
patterns of dominant forms and recessive forms and the recovery of forms
from earlier generations. What set Mendels work apart, according to Dunn,
was the precise framing of questions, the systematic interpretation of
results, and the emphasis on rules and ratios (2733).
While Mendels precision, systematic approach, and emphasis on rules
may have distinguished him from other experimental botanists of his day,
what really sets Mendel apart as a historical figure are the historical narratives
that were formed in the first decade of the 1900s. Or, in Kraghs terms, view-
ing Mendel diachronically we can find evidence that Mendel did indeed
make a valuable contribution to the study of heredity. But understanding that
contribution does not lead to a strong understanding of the importance of the
figure of Mendel in the rise of genetics in the twentieth century. The emer-
gence of Mendelism was central to the development of twentieth-century
genetics. But Mendelism did not spring forth, fully formed, from Mendels
experiments nor from Mendels texts.
THE MAKI NG OF AN I CON
In March 1900, Hugo de Vries, a professor of botany at the University of
Amsterdam, published a paper citing the work of Gregor Mendel. De Vries
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 20
had been experimenting with maize and peas and had observed a segregation
of characters in the offspring of hybrids. His recognition of the importance of
the patterns of segregation led him to conduct a literature review which in
turn led him to the earlier work of Mendel. According to Dunn, the publica-
tion of de Vriess research encouraged the publication of similar research,
confirming similar patterns of segregation, by two other experimental
botanists: Carl Correns and Erich von Tschermak-Seysenegg (35). The
reported findings of de Vries, Correns, and Tschermak, though they had con-
ducted their studies independently, confirmed one another and verified the
findings that Mendel had reported in 1866.
The convergence of these three papers is often referred to as the redis-
covery of Mendels principles. But they did not make Mendel into an instant
historical icon. It was William Bateson, who also worked closely with breed-
ing and hybrid studies, who promoted Mendel as a foundational and iconic
figure. Bateson had received a copy of Mendels paper from de Vries and was
apparently immediately moved by it and worked to promote the significance
of its findings to the scientific community. Dunn cites Beatrice Batesons
memoir of her husband and her account of Bateson reading Mendels paper
while traveling to London, in the spring of 1900, to deliver his paper Prob-
lems of Heredity as a Subject for Horticultural Investigation to the Royal
Horticultural Society:
On his way to town to deliver it he read Mendels actual paper on peas for
the first time. As a lecturer he was always cautious, suggesting rather than
affirming his own convictions. So ready was he however for the simple
Mendelian law that he at once incorporated it into his lecture. (Dunn 63)
Dunn extends this narrative, writing From that day on, Bateson devoted all
his enthusiasm and literary gifts, which were considerable, to promulgating
what he soon came to call Mendelism (64).
Bateson arranged to have the paper translated and published in The Jour-
nal of the Royal Horticulture Society that year. Two years later, Bateson pub-
lished a book-length defense of Mendels principles, explaining the signifi-
cance of the findings to the experimental study of heredity and including a
translation of Mendels original paper. The title of the workMendels Prin-
ciples of Heredity: A Defensemarks the primary transformation from
Mendels experiments with plant breeding and differentiating characteristics
to an originary text on the principles of heredity.
Bateson opens the preface of the book with a powerful narrative of
Mendel as a foundational figure:
In the Study of Evolution progress had well-nigh stopped. The more vigor-
ous, perhaps also the more prudent, had left this field of science to labour in
others where the harvest is less precarious or the yield more immediate. Of
GENETIC ORIGIN STORIES 21
those who remained some still struggled to push toward truth through the
jungle of phenomena: most were content supinely to rest on the great clear-
ing Darwin made long since.
Such was our state when two years ago it was suddenly discovered that an
unknown man, Gregor Johann Mendel, had, alone, and unheeded, broken
off from the restin the moment that Darwin was at workand cut a way
through. (v)
Here we can see the early roots of the story of Mendel working all alone in
his monastery garden, committed to pursuing the principles of heredity. Bate-
son has effectively plucked Mendel from the scientific context in which he
worked, and for which he articulated his contribution, and figured him as
courageously breaking away from the soporific herd, boldly going it alone on
the quest for the truth.
Bateson continues, with cuesof the sort that are familiar in ghost sto-
ries and fairy talesthat he is consciously engaging in myth making:
This is no mere metaphor, it is simple fact. Each of us who now looks at his
own patch of work sees Mendels clue running through it: whither that clue
will lend, we dare not yet surmise.
It was a moment of rejoicing, and they who had heard the news hastened to
spread them and take the instant way. In this work I am proud to have borne
my little part. (vvi)
This is rather dramatic writing, even for a committed scientist who has been
profoundly moved by the explanatory power of some newly uncovered research
from the previous century. As the defense of the title indicates, some context
is needed to appreciate the motivation for both Batesons commitment to pro-
moting Mendels work and his incentive to create such a powerful origin nar-
rative, installing Mendel as the historic figure whose rediscovery could invigo-
rate what Bateson had cast as an otherwise stagnant field of inquiry.
Mendelism Versus Darwinism
The defense of the title refers to Batesons point-by-point response to a cri-
tique of the significance of Mendels work published by Raphael Weldon in
the first issue of the journal Biometrika. Neither Weldon nor his critique was
new or surprising to Bateson. In fact, Weldon and Bateson had been
embroiled in such intense theoretical and personal conflict that it is difficult,
if not impossible, to determine who was on the offense and who was on the
defense. It is also difficult to tell, especially in textually framed hindsight,
whether the fuel of the conflict was primarily theoretical, primarily personal,
or as MacKensie and Barnes have suggested, primarily ideological. But the
conflict was certainly heated and it expanded to become much more than a
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 22
debate between two individual researchers. The conflict, often referred to as
the biometric-Mendelian controversy, has been a primary focus of several his-
torical and sociological studies of science.
4
Weldon and Bateson had known each other for at least twenty years
before the height of their conflict over the significance of Mendels work.
According to Lyndsay Farrall, Weldon had been Batesons junior teacher at
St. Johns College, Cambridge, where they both had studied biology. And, as
Farrall puts it, the two began their professional careers accepting the para-
digm of post-Darwinian evolutionary morphology to which they had been
introduced by their teachers (Farrall 273274).
As Farralls account suggests, the conflict over the significance of Mendel
was also a conflict over the centrality of Darwinism. Just as a discussion of
Mendelism calls for a review of Mendel and his work, a discussion of Dar-
winism deserves a review of Darwin. Charles Darwin is celebrated and
remembered most for his theory of natural selection, which he articulated in
The Origin of Species in 1859, six years before Mendel first presented his paper.
In contrast to the work of Mendel and the other experimental botanists of
the 1800s, Darwins outline of natural selection is a macroanalysis of the
transformation of species. That is, his focus is primarily on the major changes
of species in their natural environments and the survival of some forms of life
over others. But Darwin was also concerned with the comparatively micro-
analytic questions of the experimental botanists. In fact, he begins The Ori-
gin of Species with a chapter on variation of species under domestication. The
studies of domesticated animals and cultivated plants provide the necessary
foundation, Darwin tells us, for examining the transformations of species.
In the introduction, Darwin refers to The Origin of Species as an
abstract, explaining that he was setting out to present a general sketch of
his conclusions about the transformation of species. He announces that he
does not include references and authorities for my several statements but
promises future publication of all the facts, with references, on which my
conclusions have been grounded (34). In 1868, Darwin published The Vari-
ation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, a two-volume compilation of
observations regarding variations within particular species and patterns of
inheritance, articulations of laws of inheritance, and methods of manipulat-
ing heredity. Though he mentions, in a footnote, that the volumes offer the
promised supporting evidence for natural selection, he also positions his work
as a contribution to the ongoing questions of stability of and changes within
species. In other words, he positions himself in the same research context
that Mendel does. At the end of the book, Darwin proposes his hypothesis of
pangenesis, which he offers as a preliminary attempt to build a theory that
would explain the biological mechanisms of heredity.
The tradition of Darwinism, as expressed in late nineteenth- and early
twentieth-century life science studies, focused on Darwins theory of natural
GENETIC ORIGIN STORIES 23
selection and not his studies of animals and plants under domestication.
When Weldon and his colleague Karl Pearson established biometrics as a dis-
tinct field of study, devoted to the development of the statistical methods for
analyzing evolution and questions of variation within species, they claimed a
direct historical lineage to Darwin. As Weldon wrote in a paper published in
the Proceedings of the Royal Society, The questions raised by the Darwinian
hypothesis are purely statistical, and the statistical method is the only one at
present obvious by which that hypothesis can be currently checked
(18941895: 381). The Darwinian hypothesis here is not the hypothesis of
pangenesis. Weldon is not referring to Darwins attempt to build theory of the
biological mechanisms of heredity, but to his theory of natural selection. Wel-
don is not simply referring back to the work of Darwin; he is establishing a
very particular historical lineage.
While Weldon was developing his studies of the statistical analysis of
evolutionary change, Bateson was busy developing his own commitment to
the study of discontinous variation. In 1883 and 1884, Bateson had spent sum-
mers researching in Virginia with Professor W. K. Brooks of Johns Hopkins
University. Through his work with Brooks, Bateson became convinced of the
importance of discontinuous variation and experimental hybridization to the
study of heredity (Dunn 62). The focus on discontinuous variation is a focus,
much like Mendels, on differentiated characteristics. In other words, Bateson
was convinced by studies that examined variations that were defined not
along a continuum but rather as distinct points of difference that could be
tracked from one generation to the next. Bateson continued to develop an
experimental focus and to examine the significance of discontinuous varia-
tion. In 1894, he published Materials for the Study of Variation: treated with
especial regard to discontinuity in the origin of the species. In it, he compiled
research studies of a broad range of individual species and, as the subtitle sug-
gests, made the case for the importance of studying discontinuous variation.
Dunn characterizes Batesons Materials for the Study of Variation as a bold
and original attack on that part of the theory of natural selection which
assumed that it operated primarily on small continuous variations (58). Dunn
also characterizes Batesons commitment to discontinuous variation as the
source of his conflict with Weldon (63). Elof Axel Carlson also identifies Bate-
sons commitment to discontinuous variation as the source of conflict, but he
goes a little further in describing Bateson as a brash and outspoken maverick
whose militant attitude against Darwins interpretation of variation made his
superiors hesitate; it antagonized those who would have been his friends (11).
In Carlsons account, Weldon is the established insider to Batesons
unorthodox and challenging ways. In describing one of their most heated
debates, Carlson explains, Bateson was never one to decline a debate. How-
ever, Weldon was his benefactor and his senior. Bateson was now forty years
old; he had not yet received a teaching position with Cambridge University. . . .
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 24
He was, in effect, a postgraduate on fellowship for almost twenty years (11).
But in Farralls account, Bateson is characterized as the more powerful one.
Within the Royal Society, Bateson successfully casts Weldons commitment to
statistical methods as unorthodox and inappropriate for the study of variation.
In fact, the study of biometrics was eventually so effectively censured within
the Royal Society that Weldon and Pearson found it necessary to strike out on
their own and establish their own journal Biometrika (Farrall 287289).
In the first issue of Biometrika, Weldon, Pearson, and a third editor, C. B.
Davenport, define the purpose of the journal as:
to serve as a means not only of collecting under one title data of a kind not
systematically collected or published in any other periodical, but also of
spreading a knowledge of such statistical theory as may be requisite for their
scientific treatment. (1)
The opening editorial The Scope of Biometrika continues by asserting the
primacy of Darwin and his theory of natural selection.
The starting point of Darwins theory of evolution is precisely the existence
of those differences between individual members of a race or species which
morphologists for the most part rightly neglect. The first condition neces-
sary, in order that any process of Natural Selection may begin among a race,
or species, is the existence of differences among its members; and the fist
step in an enquiry into the possible effect of a selective process upon any
character of a race must be an estimate of the frequency with which indi-
viduals, exhibiting any given degree of abnormality with respect to that
character, occur. (1)
The foundational role for Darwin is affirmed on the inside front cover of the
journal where a picture of a saint-like statue of Darwin appears.
It is in this first issue of Biometrika that Weldon publishes the critique of
Mendel that I mentioned earlier as the prompt for Batesons defense. In his
critique, he advocates his own view of the effect of ancestral populations on
heredity:
Now it is well known to all breeders, and it is clearly shown in a number of
cases by Galton and Pearson, that the condition of an animal does not as a
rule depend upon the conditions of any one pair of ancestors alone, but in
varying degrees upon the condition of all its ancestors in every past genera-
tion, the condition in each of the half dozen nearest generations having a
quite sensible effect. (229)
This view of ancestral heredity is, as we will see in the following chapter, a
view that, seven years later, Johannsen pounces on as an example of a flawed
use of metaphors in the study of heredity, thus making a case for the purifi-
cation of language and terminology in the genotype conception of heredity.
GENETIC ORIGIN STORIES 25
To sum up, the establishment of biometrics as a distinct discipline with
its own journal was at least in part instigated by William Batesons agitation
in the Royal Society. The inaugural issue of Biometrika reveals the fusion of a
commitment to Darwinism, a rejection of Mendelism, and a promotion of
statistical methods in the study of heredity in populations. Batesons defense
of Mendelism stands in antithesis with its rejection of Darwinism and its own
integration of scientific method and historical narrative.
The First Conference on Genetics
Four years after the publication of his defense of Mendels principles, in the
summer of 1906, Bateson rearticulated his heroic story of Mendel. This time
the context was less antagonistic and his rhetorical style was decidedly gen-
teel. He was delivering an inaugural address to the Third Conference on Hib-
ridisation and Plant-Breeding. The conference was hosted by the Royal Hor-
ticultural Society and organized by and presided over by Bateson. The
opening remarks at the conference by the chairman Sir John Llewelyn, the
society president Sir Trevor Lawrence, and Bateson as conference president
all emphasize the shared goal of celebrating and promoting an alliance
between practice and science. Practice here is the activity of plant breeding
and the work of horticulturalists and science is primarily associated with
Mendelism, along with the activity of working with those mysterious sym-
bols written on the blackboard (5559).
Bateson opens his inaugural address by looking back on the first con-
ference of hybridization and plant breeding: The predominant note of our
deliberations in 1899 was mystery. In 1906 we speak less of mystery than of
order (91). Not surprisingly, what allows for the move from mystery to
order, Bateson tells us, is the rediscovery of Mendel. First he characterizes
the mystery:
When formerly we looked at a series of plants produced by hybridization we
perceived little but bewildering complexity. We knew well enough that
behind that complexity order and system were concealed. Glimpses indeed
of pervading order were from time to time obtained, but they were transient
and uncertain. As casual prospectors we picked up occasional stray nuggets
in the sand, but we had not located the reef, nor had we any machinery for
working it if discovered. (91)
We might recall that during the time that he is characterizing as the
great dark mystery before the light, Bateson was busy promoting the impor-
tance of continuous variation and arguing against the biometricians in the
Royal Society. But he is not here in the business of self-promotion as much
as he is in the business of Mendel promotion. Thus, Bateson moves on to cast
Mendel as the great beacon of hope:
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 26
Then came the revelation of Mendels clue, with all the manifold advances
in knowledge to which it has led. The most Protean assemblage of hybrid
derivatives no longer menaces us as a hopeless enigma. We are sure that
even the multitudinous shapes of the cucurbits, or the polychromatic hues
of orchidswould yield to our analysis. Methods for grappling even with
these higher problems have been devised. The immediate difficulties are
chiefly of extension and application. Thus the study of hybridization and
plant-breeding, from being a speculative pastime to be pursued without
apparatus or technical equipment in the hope that something would turn
up, has become a developed science, destined, as we believe, not merely to add
new regions to mans knowledge and power, but also to absorb and modify
profoundly large tracts of the older sciences. (91, emphasis mine)
Mendel here is figured as the one who allowed plant breeding and the
study of hybrids to become a science. First there was groping in the mysteri-
ous dark. Then Mendels experiments were rediscovered. And the dark
became light.
After making a case that the pursuit of order through the study of
hybridization and plant breeding is indeed a science, and a very promising
science at that, Bateson proposes naming this new science:
the science itself is still nameless, and we can only describe our pursuit by
cumbrous and often misleading periphrasis. To meet this difficulty I suggest
for the consideration of this Congress the term Genetics, which sufficiently
indicates that our labours are devoted to the elucidation of the phenomena
of heredity and variation; in other words, to the physiology of Descent, with
implied bearing on the theoretical problems of the evolutionist and the sys-
tematist, and application to the practical problems of animals or plants. After
more or less undirected wanderings we have thus a definite aim in view. (91)
When the conference proceedings were published, they were published
not as a report on the third conference on hybridization and plant breeding
but as The Report of the Conference on Genetics and Allied Sciences. In a gesture
mirroring the biometricians journal, a portrait of Mendel graces the inside
front cover and the proceedings include an explanation of Mendels work.
The papers published in the proceedings affirm the applicability of
Mendels laws and the importance of the ongoing pursuit of Mendelian
research. The first paper in the proceedings, though it was not the first to be
presented at the conference, is a paper by Wilhelm Johannsen. The paper
Does Hybridisation Increase Fluctuating Variability? is framed as a defense
of Mendelism and a rejection of the biometrical approach, which Johannsen
casts as dangerous and uncertain (98). Though Bateson had not mentioned
the biometricians in his opening address, Johannsen here carries on the tradi-
tion of promoting Mendel in conjunction with denouncing the biometricians.
GENETIC ORIGIN STORIES 27
CONCLUSION
Johannsens rhetorical strategies in the naming of the gene are the subject of
the next chapter. His participation in the First Conference on Genetics and
his paper defending Mendelism while rejecting biometrics help to identify his
theoretical and institutional allegiances. Further study of Johannsens papers
might aid us in assessing the extent to which Johannsen was influenced by
Bateson, by Batesons history telling, and by Batesons commitment to mak-
ing genetics into an authoritative field of study distinct from the biometri-
cians and their commitment to Darwin.
But, in preparation for the chapters that follow, my aim here is not to
establish or assert lines of causality and lines of influences that may have
shaped Johannsens theoretical and rhetorical commitments. Rather, my pur-
pose is to suggest strategies for reading Johannsens text as participating in the
telling and retelling of an origin narrative of genetics. The texts of Bateson
and his scientific adversary Weldon offer more than a sense of historical con-
text for examining the writings of Johannsen. They also serve as rhetorical
models that highlight the importance of history in the formation of scientific
disciplines. Bateson and Weldon were powerful influences in the history of
genetics. That is, both influenced the course of research that would follow
them and both shaped the stories that would be told about the origins of that
research. Those stories are reflected in Johannsens text as is the technique of
history-making rhetoric.
The text in which Johannsen makes an extended case for the gene con-
firms the story of Mendel as the foundational figure of genetics and presumes
a broad acceptance of Mendelism as real and true. Johannsens text also calls
upon the biometricians as a powerful antithesis of the real and true approach
to genetics. Batesons insistence on this same story line should serve as a guide
for preparing us to read Johannsens naming of the gene not only as part of
the history of science but also as participating in the writing of the history of
genetics.
In Johannsens account, the reality of the gene is established by Mendel.
Johannsen casts himself as simply providing a new name for that reality. This
story line corroborates the origin narrative that Bateson established for the
field of genetics and helps to establish the gene as material, real, inevitable,
and ahistorical.
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 28
Let me give you just one instance of Maudes inhuman sagacity. Maude
named the tools . . . Maude named the rasp. Think of it. What else
could a rasp be but a rasp? Maude in her wisdom went right to the
point, and called it rasp. . . . The tools came to Maude, tool by tool in
a long respectful line, she gave them their names. The vise. The gimlet.
The cold chisel. The reamer, the router, the gouge. The plumb bob.
How could she have thought up the rough justice of these wonderful
cognomens? Looking languidly at a pair of tin snips, and then deciding
to call them tin snipswhat a burst of glory!
Donald Barthelme, The End of the Mechanical Age
IN 1909, WILHELM JOHANNSEN introduced the name gentranslated into
English as genein his Elemente der Exakten Erblichkeitslehre, a textbook
detailing methods of genetic analysis and defining, with great precision, tech-
nical terminology. In 1910, in an address to the American Society of Natu-
ralists, he made a case for the name gene, defining it by detailing the rhetor-
ical work it was to do. In this chapter I examine Johannsens argument for the
name. Though the gene would become an extraordinarily useful knowledge-
making tool, its initiation in language was more than a moment of sagacious
recognition, more than going right to the point and assigning a new tool a
new name. In the case of the gene, as with much technical and theoretical
terminology, the name was the tool. And the justification for the new tool
was also the prescription for its work.
My focus in this chapter is on the rhetorical work that Johannsen pre-
scribed for the gene and the genotype conception as he presented his new
theoretical terminology to a community of scientists and made a case for their
necessity. For an illustrative point of contrast, I also examine the rhetorical
work that Charles Darwin outlined for his pangenesis theory and its compo-
nents forty years prior to Johannsens publications.
29
3
Prescribing Rhetorical Work:
Genetic Theories, Gemmules, and Genes
An oft-cited passage from Johannsens textbook provides a previewa
preview both of the more detailed prescription that Johannsen presents in his
1910 address and a preview of what I mean by saying Johannsen prescribed
rhetorical work. In the passage, Johannsen introduces the gene as an extrac-
tion from the then broadly circulating term pangene, which he suggests had
become too crowded with distracting associations:
Therefore it appears simplest to isolate the last syllable, gene, which alone is
of interest to us, from Darwins well known word, and thereby replace the less-
desirable, ambiguous word disposition. Consequently, we will simply speak of
the gene and the genes instead of the pangene and the pangenes.
(Johannsen, Elemente 46)
1
Pangene was not actually a word that Darwin used. It was, however, a
name for a concept that had a lineage that could be traced back to Darwins
writing. It was also part of the shared vocabulary of evolutionary and heredi-
tary theorists of the late 1800s and early 1900s, including those who, as
described in the previous chapter, disagreed about the centrality of Darwin-
ian thought. Aligned with William Bateson, who worked to promote
Mendelian principles and displace the primacy of Darwin, Johannsen offered
his new term and an enduring form of geneaological reasoning: extricating
both a syllable and a concept from an existing concept, he revised its con-
ceptual lineage and redefined the conceptual contours. Elof Axel Carlson, in
his The Gene: A Critical History, uses this genealogical reasoning to present
the gene in the context of a history of concepts:
Johannsen sought to replace the unit-character and the earlier particulate
units of Spencer, Darwin, Nageli, Weismann, Roux, and de Vries. The clos-
est unit to what he had in mind was the pangen of Darwin and de Vries. To
avoid the historical connotations associated with this term, Johannsen
offered an abbreviation. (20)
But Johannsen did not simply revise a concept; he also advocated the use
of a specialized term over a nonspecializeda less desirable, ambiguous
term. His approach to defining the new term is not simply a matter of revis-
ing and refining an existing conceptualization but also a matter of working
the boundary between specialized and nonspecialized language. This bound-
ary work becomes a central theme in his address to the American Society of
Naturalists, which I turn to later in this chapter.
In the brief textbook passage, the boundary work, together with the par-
tial disassociation from existing conceptualizations, helps to clear a new
rhetorical space for what Johannsen casts as an evident fact:
The word gene is completely free from any hypotheses; it expresses only
the evident fact that, in any case, many characteristics of the organism are
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 30
specified in the gametes by means of special conditions, foundations, and
dispositions which are present in unique, separate, and thereby independent
waysin short, precisely what we wish to call genes. (Elemente 46)
While the epistemic status of the gene is clearly being amplified, the evi-
dent fact that is captured by the name is neither new nor controversial. That
characteristics are specified in the gametes is commonplace among the range
of researchers studying biology, evolution, and heredity at the time. That spe-
cial conditions, foundations, and dispositions are involved in this process of
specification is hardly new and certainly not challenging or antithetical to
any theoretical commitment of the time. What is new here is the encapsula-
tion of these ideas into a single word that is to function as an incontrovert-
ible fact.
The passage excerpted from the textbook provides a sense of the rhetor-
ical work that Johannsen prescribed for the gene. The gene was to be linked
to previous conceptualizations, but revised and reconfigured. It was to func-
tion in a separate sphere of discourse from its more common, everyday, and
ambiguous cousin, the disposition. The gene was to remain free of hypoth-
esis regarding its material definition and was to function rhetorically as a
hard fact.
A year after the publication of Elemente der Exakten Erblichkeitslehre,
Johannsen prepared his speech for the American Society of Naturalists out-
lining his genotype conception of heredity. In it Johannsen carefully con-
structs an argument for his genotype conception and explicitly figures the
gene. As in the textbook, he urges the separation of scientific and everyday
language and advocates the importance of managing the precision of termi-
nology. He works the edges of the gene, demarcating it from existing con-
ceptions of hereditary units and maintaining the importance of a hypotheses-
free status.
In the speech, Johannsen makes a series of declarations about language,
metaphors, uncertain knowledge, and reality. These declarations are interest-
ing in themselves, especially as they endorse specific attitudes about rhetoric
and science. But the declarations are also integral components of his argu-
ment for the genotype conception, an argument that, like the gene, is an
argument about the control of language and rhetoric.
Before examining Johannsens speech, I take a detour to Charles Dar-
wins Pangenesis argument. Though, historically, Darwins theory preceded
Johannsens, I am not examining it here as a predecessor of genes or gene the-
ories, but rather as an instance of scientific rhetoric that, in emphasizing its
status as a hypothetical explanation attempting to make intelligible a large
class of facts, offers an illuminating point of contrast for seeing the rhetorical
work of Johannsens gene. Forty years separate the publications of Darwins
and Johannsens arguments. They are constructed in very different scientific
PRESCRIBING RHETORICAL WORK 31
and rhetorical contexts and they occupy very different positions in relation
to the commonly told origin narratives of the science of genetics. My inten-
tion here is not to connect or draw any new lines of causality between these
two moments. Rather, I extract Darwins argument from its context to serve
as a rhetorical device, a foil, for Johannsens argument. Whereas Darwin is
accumulating and synthesizing, Johannsen is clearing and demarcating.
Whereas Darwins hypothesizing affirms the authoritative status of con-
structed knowledge, Johannsens disavowal of hypotheses establishes an
authoritative status for his own theory and for the gene.
DARWI N S RHETORI C AS ANTI THESI S FOR THE GENE
In urging his readers to displace the term pangene, Johannsen links the inad-
equate term to the work of Charles Darwin. It was actually Hugo de Vries
who brought the pangene into circulation in his Intracellulare Pangenesis
(published in 1889, seven years after Darwins death). Darwin, though, had
introduced the name pangenesis in 1868 as a label for his attempt to
account for how organisms are reproduced in their entirety. As suggested by
the Greek root pan, Darwins hypothesis holds that all units of the organism
are involved in reproduction: I venture to advance the hypothesis of Pange-
nesis, which implies that every separate part of the whole organization repro-
duces itself (350). It is the rhetorical venture of advancing a hypothesis,
rather than the pangenes (which Darwin did not name), that provides the
rhetorical antithesis for the gene.
Darwin did articulate a concept of hereditary units, called gemmules,
which he introduced as part of his chief assumption of pangenesis. In con-
trast with de Vries concept of a pangene, which is relatively close to a
twentieth-century gene concept, Darwins gemmule has more in common
with concepts articulated by Hippocrates and Aristotle than with twenti-
eth-century gene concepts (Sturtevant 13). The gemmules are configured
as tiny granules that are thrown off from each separate part or unit of an
organism during every stage of development and gather in the germ cells at
reproduction, to be passed on (complete with environmental changes) and
grown into new parts. Viewed as precursors to genes, or viewed amid a con-
ceptual history of hereditary units, the gemmules appear embarrassingly
hokey. They are, after all, little granular reductions of all parts of an organ-
ism that accumulate in the right place at the right time to form a whole
being. But viewed in the context of Darwins argument, the gemmules
appear unabashedly, and purposefully, contrived. They are offered as overtly
hypothetical figures.
Darwin does not set out to defend the reality of his gemmules. Instead,
he sets his gemmules up to defend the reality and urgency of established facts
regarding variation and reproduction. Ironically, it is a dismissal of the scien-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 32
tific and historical significance of pangenesis that points to the rhetorical sig-
nificance of Darwins explanation. In her foreword to a 1998 edition of Dar-
wins two-volume work on animal and plant variation, Harriet Ritvo writes:
It has doubtless been fortunate for Darwins reputation that his theory of
pangenesis is not as well remembered as his theory of evolution by natural
selection. As vague in detail as it was ambitious and comprehensive in
scope, it was unpersuasive at the time and has since been proven completely
wrong. (8)
The hypothesis may have been unpersuasive in its particulars, but it is the
vagueness of detail and the comprehensiveness of scope that is of interest
here for examining Darwins explanation in relation to his own stated rhetor-
ical goals.
A comprehensiveness of scope is Darwins starting place, his proclaimed
exigence for the articulation of pangenesis. He outlines his hypothesis in the
penultimate chapter of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestica-
tion, the two-volume compilation of studies of variation, breeding, and hered-
ity that I mentioned in chapter two. In the two volumes, Darwin weaves
overviews of others work and his own observations, all addressing questions
of variation and transformation in domesticated species, leading finally to a
provisional hypothesis of pangenesis. He begins the pangenesis chapter by
announcing the rhetorical task for his hypothesis, namely, to synthesize large
groups of facts:
In the previous chapters large classes of facts, such as those bearing on bud-
variation, the various forms of inheritance, the causes and laws of variation,
have been discussed; and it is obvious that these subjects, as well as the sev-
eral modes of reproduction, stand in some sort of relation to one another. I
have been led, or rather forced, to form a view which to a certain extent
connects these facts by a tangible method. (349)
It is unclear what the nature of the force is, perhaps, the seismic force of
many facts accumulating in one place, or the momentous force of science
itself, or the rhetorical force of approaching a conclusion. Regardless, with
all forces aligned, the biological facts have been amassed and are now requir-
ing a single explanation. Note here (in preparation for a contrast with
Johannsens gene) that it is not the explanation but the need for the expla-
nation, the exigence, that Darwin positions as emanating from the biologi-
cal facts themselves.
Still, despite the imperative bulk of the previous twenty-six chapters,
Darwin sets out in the first part of the chapter to enumerate as briefly as I
can the groups of facts which seem to demand connection (350). The enu-
meration of the explanation-demanding facts occupies over a third of the
pangenesis chapter. It takes the form of a heavily footnoted bibliographic
PRESCRIBING RHETORICAL WORK 33
essay, summarizing an extensive range of examples of reproduction, genera-
tion, and regrowth from individual species of plants and animals, published
in books and journals such as The Annals and Magazine of Natural History,
Annales des Sciences Nat. Zool., Nature, Euvres dHist Nat., Monthly Journal of
Medical Science, and The American Naturalist. The examples are arranged to
suggest similarities or series of fine gradations of differences across species and
categorical lines, with subsections punctuated by such notes as we may con-
clude that the several forms of budding, fissiparous generation, the repair of
injuries, and development, are all essentially the results of one and the same
power (353) and Sexual and asexual reproduction are thus seen not to dif-
fer essentially; and we have already shown that asexual reproduction, the
power of re-growth and development are all parts of one and the same great
law (357). The bulk of examples continues to justify the need for an inte-
grating theory, with the selection and arrangement continuing to define the
contours of the exigence of the hypothesis to come.
2
With the enumeration of facts completed, the hypothetical explanation
is put forth to respond to the inexorable exigence that has been established:
I have now enumerated the chief facts which every one would desire to see
connected by some intelligible bond. This can be done, if we make the fol-
lowing assumptions, and much may be advanced in favour of the chief one
(369). Note that the hypothesis takes the form of a set of assumptions. The
description of the assumptions, including the chief assumption of the gem-
mules, is short in comparison to the enumeration of facts that forced its exis-
tence. It occupies less than a page. And, unlike the previous chapters and the
previous section, which present observations, facts, laws, and principles in an
objective tone (with the passive voice endorsing the authority of established
knowledge), this set of assumptions forming the hypothesis relies heavily on
the first-person pronoun and the hedging moves that convey knowledge-in-
the-making:
3
I assume that the units throw off minute granules which are dispersed
throughout the whole system; that these, when supplied with proper nutri-
ment, multiply by self-division, and are ultimately developed into units like
those from which they were originally derived. These granules may be called
gemmules. . . . Gemmules are supposed to be thrown off by every unit. . . .
Lastly, I assume that the gemmules in their dormant state have a mutual
affinity for each other. . . . These assumptions constitute the provisional
hypothesis which I have called Pangenesis. (370)
Everything about the hypothesis is provisional and temporary. The first-
person pronoun keeps the assumptions close to the authors point of view and,
thus, farther from the realm of objective observations or objective claims.
Also, the hypothesis is offered as an attempt to explain, something to think
with; it is not something that is to immediately acquire the status of estab-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 34
lished facts and principles. Further, Darwin reinforces the rhetorical-epistemic
status of his hypothesis by making a case for the scientific value of speculation
and hypothesis and by citing a theoretical prescription:
I am aware that my view is merely a provisional hypothesis or speculation;
but until a better one be advanced, it will serve to bring together a multi-
tude of facts which are at present left disconnected by any efficient cause.
As Whewell, the historian of the inductive sciences, remarks:Hypothe-
ses may often be of service to science, when they involve a certain portion
of incompleteness, and even of error. (349350)
Darwin offers his explanation as provisional. He attends more to pre-
scribing what the explanation needs to do than he does to defending the
legitimacy or permanence of the explanation.
4
He suggests that his explana-
tion is intended to do some rhetorical work to hold some configurations of
knowledge in place until something better comes along, or until somebody
reconfigures his explanation. It is as if he is offering his hypothesis as a string
figure in a game of cats cradle, to be handed off to others to be reconfigured
and reimagined.
I am borrowing the metaphor of cats cradle from Donna Haraway, who,
in her article A Game of Cats Cradle: Science Studies, Feminist Theory,
Cultural Studies, sets up the game of passing string figures as a model for the-
ory making, or rather, for engaged knowledge making. In the game, one per-
son can build up a large repertoire of string figures on a single pair of hands;
but the cats cradle figures can be passed back and forth on the hands of sev-
eral players, who add new moves in the building of complex patterns (69).
As a trope for rhetoric and epistemology, cats cradle offers advantages over
the agonistic tropes of war and argumentation, in which one theory, expla-
nation, or paradigm wins and reigns supreme, dominating the field until its
power is usurped by another explanation that overthrows it. Instead, cats
cradle invites a sense of collective work, of one person not being able to make
all the patterns alone. One does not win at cats cradle; the goal is much
more interesting and open-ended than that (70).
Apparently, the theory of pangenesis did get passed around and recon-
figured in the scientific community. As mentioned earlier, de Vries pre-
sented his own configuration of pangenesis in which he articulated a role for
what he called pangenes. In 1892, hereditary theorist J. A. Thomson
explained, This hypothesis has been repeatedly modified, but, except in the
general sense that the body may influence its reproductive cells, pangene-
sis is discredited by most biologists. Still, in 1909, Thomson continues to
treat Darwins hypothesis seriously as the best known theory of its class and
as an emphatically provisional hypothesis that still had all the merits of a
warrantable scientific hypothesis, and had the marks of the insight of
genius (406407).
PRESCRIBING RHETORICAL WORK 35
For Haraway, cats cradle string figures are more than powerful explana-
tory models, more than useful devices for standing back and examining
rhetoric and epistemology. Cats cradle is a game for engaging in scholar-
ship as refiguration; it is a game for inquiring into all the oddly configured
categories clumsily called things like science, gender, race, class, nation, or
discipline (69). While Darwin, in presenting his hypothesis as provisional
and temporary, invites revision and refiguration, he may not be engaging
in a Haraway game of reconfiguring categories of authoritative knowledge,
techno-science power, gender, race, and class. But Darwins hypothesis is
still worthy of Haraways serious gaming metaphor because it is both an
example of offering an explanation while inviting refiguration and an
example of explicating what kind of knowledge-making game it is
intended for.
But there is another reason why it is worth tying Darwins hypothesis
with Haraways string figure game. Haraways game of cats cradle is
intended to neutralize the poison of metaphor-free facticity; it is an anti-
dote and an antithesis to the rhetoric of scientific realism, in which, as she
puts it, Expunging metaphoricity from the sacred realm of facticity
depends on the conjuring trick of establishing the categorical purity of
nature and society, nonhuman and human (69). Darwins hypothesis may
not be terribly potent as an antidote to the persuasive powers of the gene as
a trope of realism, but it does serve as an important antithesis, valuable for
illuminating the rhetorical work that was prescribed for the gene, work that
is intricately tangled up in the purification of a very small, and very perva-
sive, realm of facticity.
J OHANNSEN S RHETORI CAL CLEARI NG
In contrast to Darwins hypothesis as provisional figuration, Johannsen pre-
sents his genotype theory and his gene concept as epistemic spaces clear of
hypothetical speculations, decidedly not provisional, and certainly not
openly figurative. His 1910 address to the American Society of Naturalists,
The Genotype Conception of Heredity, is a well-crafted argument for his
genetic research methodology, emphasizing the fundamental value of
Mendelian methods, the importance of the paired concepts of phenotype and
genotype, and the need for genes. He appeals to pragmatic values and the
importance of experimental observation, complimenting American science
(which has provided a true home for the stringent analytic tendencies of
modern genetics), and staking out a clearing for scientific realism by exor-
cising formidable rhetorical foes, including figurative language, dialectical
reasoning, fiction, pretending, and speculations taken as fact.
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 36
The Tropic Boundary of Genetic Reality
Johannsens address begins with an assumed distinction between biology and
every-day language. It is a distinction that allows for the identification of a
problem of a tropic transfer, or movement of a term from one realm to
another:
Biology has evidently borrowed the terms heredity and inheritance from
every-day language, in which the meaning of these words is the transmis-
sion of money, or things, rights or duties . . . from one person to another or
to some others. . . . The view of natural inheritance as realized by an act of
transmission, viz., the transmission of the parents (or ancestors) personal
qualities to the progeny, is the most nave and oldest conception of heredity
(Genotype 129).
Here, the problem of conceptualizing biological inheritance in terms of the
inheritance of property is the problem of using a trope without recognizing or
acknowledging it as a trope. As if to prevent a trope from ossifying into an
accepted representation of a biological reality, Johannsen emphasizes its sta-
tus as a trope, casting the biological use of heredity as a catachresis (though
he does not call it that) where the proper context is the everyday and the
context to which the usage of the term is stretched, or moved, is the biolog-
ical. Though he expresses concern over language hardening into truth, his
point in this opening passage has less to do with preserving the vitality of a
trope and more to do with establishing a context for real representations.
With the focus on the tropic movement of terms from one context to
another, the distinction between the two contexts appears fixed and real;
biology becomes unquestionably removed from everyday language.
With the separation of biology and everyday language fixed, the trans-
mission conception becomes the label for the faulty collision of language
and specialized knowledge. Transmission is the problem with the heredity
trope; anybody who interprets everyday language literally, without recogniz-
ing the tropic boundary it has crossed when it is brought into the realm of
biology, is guilty of the transmission conception. But the problem is not just
that of a trope being used as if it were literal. The problem is also with the
entailments of this particular trope. The trope places too much emphasis on
the conception of heredity as transmission. Transmission is, for Johannsen,
the flawed aspect of the catachresis of heredity; it is the nave move of
thinking of biological heredity as if it were a matter of transmitting things, as
if personal qualities were just like things or money handed down from one
generation to the next.
To confirm the dismissible status of transmission, Johannsen quickly
aligns it with Lamarcks notion of acquired characteristics, Darwins pangenesis
PRESCRIBING RHETORICAL WORK 37
hypothesis, and the biometricians approach. For the audience of American
naturalists in 1910, each of these concepts is already poised to serve the epi-
deictic function of a dismissible or unworthy figure. Johannsen bundles them
together with the identifying label of transmission:
In all these cases we meet with the conception that the personal qualities of
any individual organism are the true heritable elements or traits!
This may be characterized as the transmission-conception of heredity or as
the view of apparent heredity . . . no profound insight into the biological
problem of heredity can be gained on this basis, for the transmission-con-
ception of heredity represents exactly the reverse of the real facts. (130)
What was introduced as a problematic tropic entailment is now serving as an
antithesis for the real.
To return to the language of Donna Haraway, the transmission concep-
tion is being expunged from a sacred realm of facticity. For Haraway, the
expunging of metaphoricity depends on the conjuring trick of establishing
the categorical purity of nature and society, nonhuman and human (69). But
Johannsens address is not in the business of a conjuring trick. Such tricks are
the work of culture. Rather, the address is an instance of rhetorical praxis, a
relatively straightforward instance of establishing categorical purity by
expunging inappropriate troping and ineffectual theories that share the name
transmission. This expunging of tropes becomes an integral part of the gene.
The introductory separation of biology and everyday language had initi-
ated a series of contraries, contraries that throughout the address continue to
fix and refine the boundary between specialized knowledge and the instabil-
ity of language and uncontrolled tropes. Expunging transmission, with all its
tropic entailments, Johannsen also refines and claims the zone of specialized
knowledge that is being cleared. He identifies the clearing as the modern
view of heredity, the space of all true analytical experiments, and the sci-
ence of genetics [which] is in a transition period, becoming an exact science.
The boundary of a genetic reality is becoming fixed, assuring the authority of
genetic knowledge.
The centerpiece of the reality that is being reinforced throughout the
address is the genotype conception. But the genotype conception is not only
introduced as the fulcrum of all that is not entangled in the flawed theories
and flawed tropes. It is not simply the right approach in antithesis to the
wrong approach; it must also do the work of undoing the wrong approach.
The genotype is introduced to undo, or upset, the consequences and entail-
ments of transmission:
The main result of all true analytical experiments in questions concerning
genetics is the upsetting of the transmission-conception of heredity, and the
two different ways of genetic research: pure line breeding as well as
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 38
hybridization after Mendels model, have in that respect led to the same
point of view, the genotype conception as we may call the conception of
heredity just now sketched. (131)
As in William Batesons arguments that I discussed in the previous chapter,
Mendels model and experimental studies provide stabilizing roots for the
legitimacy of genetics and the genotype conception. The roots help fix the
genotypes claim on the real facts and, together with the goal of upsetting
the illegitimate, help to affirm the antithesis of the genotype and transmis-
sion conceptions.
More Boundary Work
The genotype is set in contrast to the transmission conception, which has
been firmly situated as outside the real. Throughout the address, the trans-
mission conception serves as a marker of that which is flawed. A theory or
approach is labeled as transmission conception, which places it outside the
space of legitimate biology and outside the context of the real, thereby help-
ing to create a clearing for the legitimate. But the superiority of the genotype
conception over other competing methods and theories of the time is not
quite so simple and clear cut. The studies of heredity and genetics of the day
do not fit neatly into categories of two competing camps. To secure the valid-
ity of the genotype conception and denounce the legitimacy of existing
approaches, even existing approaches that still have currency within the
community represented by the American Society of Naturalists, Johannsen
refines the boundary that has been set between genotype and transmission.
Requiring special attention in Johannsens address are Francis Galton
and August Weismann, who Johannsen acknowledges as groundbreakers, but
not necessarily predecessors to his own genotype conception. Galton and
Weismann were also recognized as the predecessors of the study of biometrics,
whose proponents, as described in the previous chapter, were critical of the
value of Mendelism. Johannsen, thus, brings them into his address to recog-
nize their influence but to ultimately disassociate his own views from those
who claimed them as predecessors. He begins by identifying Galton and
Weismann as having worked to rid the world of transmission conceptions:
The genotype-conception, as I have called the modern view of heredity,
differs not only from the old transmission-conception as above men-
tioned, but it differs also from the related hypothetical views of Galton,
Weismann and others, who with more or less effectiveness tried to expel the
transmission-idea, having thus the great merit of breaking the ground for
the setting in of more unprejudiced inquiries. (132)
Here, acknowledging the value of hypothesis, Johannsen is able to align him-
self with the efforts of Galton and Weismann before demarcating his own
PRESCRIBING RHETORICAL WORK 39
ideas from theirs. Galton and Weismann are portrayed as having fought the
good fight of ridding the emerging science of transmission, even though
they left behind some rubble that would need to be cleared. From their
admirable and fascinating works, Johannsen identifies two pieces of rub-
ble: the ideas that elements in the zygote correspond to special organs, and
that discrete particles of the chromosome are bearers of special parts of the
whole inheritance in question (132). Though valuable steps in a process of
inquiry, the ideas are now to be dismissed:
Those special ideas may have some interest as expressions of the searching
mind, but they have no support in experience; the first of them is evidently
erroneous, the second a purely speculative morphological view of heredity
without any suggestive value. (132)
Signaling the unworthiness of these ideas are the identifiers of error and
speculation. Thus, though their efforts had been valuable, Galton and Weis-
mann now provide the opportunity to demarcate the genotype conception
from the less certain and less reliable efforts of speculation. The Weismann
speculations are pushed a bit more forcefully out of the realm of specialized
and reliable knowledge, as they are hyphenated with phantasms:
The genotype-conception of the present day, initiated by Galton and
Weismann, but now revised as an expression of the insight won by pure
line breeding and Mendelism, is in the least possible degree a speculative
conception . . .
The Mendelian workers have the great merit of being prudent in their spec-
ulations. In full accordance with this restrainta quite natural reaction
against the morphologico-phantastical speculations of the Weismann
school. (132133)
The genotype conception that is being circumscribed is not only strength-
ened by the removal of the now valueless contributions of Galton and Weis-
mann; its status as real and certain (once again tied to Mendelism) has also
been reiterated by its demarcation from speculation and phantastical ideas.
Later in the address, Johannsen returns to claiming the status of the real
for the genotype while contrasting it with the tenets and methods of the bio-
metricians. For example, he claims that Francis Galtons law of regression and
Pearsons elaboration on it pretend to have established the laws of ancestral
influences in mathematical terms and that such interesting products of
mathematical genius may be social statistics in optima forma, but they have
nothing at all to do with genetics or general biology! (138).
Having associated the notion of ancestral influence with the flawed
statistical methods of the biometricians, Johannsen secures its place outside
the realm of real genetics, associating it with fictions and ghosts:
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 40
Ancestral influence! As to heredity, it is a mystical expression for a fiction.
The ancestral influences are the ghosts of genetics, but generally the belief
in ghosts is still powerful. (138)
Finally, having been associated with pretending, fiction, and ghosts, the
concept is placed outside the clearest boundary: Ancestral influence in
heredity is, plainly speaking, a term of the transmission-conception and
nothing else (138).
With the ancestral influence associated with the transmission-concep-
tion, Johannsen returns to enforcing the tropic boundaries and managing
true meanings:
As to the evolution of human civilization we meet with true ancestral influ-
ences, viz., the tradition (comprising literature, monuments of art, etc., and
all forms of teaching). Tradition is playing a very great role, but tradition is
quite different from heredity. (139)
Recall here that heredity was the problematic term on which the speech
began, with cautions against borrowing the term, moving it from its realm of
proper meaning to the realm of biology, without recognizing the implications
of the terms movement. Now, heredity is closer to the legitimate area of the
discussion; it has changed sides but is still ensnarled in the problems of tropes.
Nevertheless there may often be danger of confusion, and here the use of
false analogs is not harmless. So an obscure metaphor is involved in archae-
ologists reference to Greek temples as ancestors of some types of Christian
churches, or in their speaking of the descent of violins from more primitive
ancestors. Certainly, evolution of types of tools, instruments and imple-
ments of all kinds isat least partiallygoing on by means of selective fac-
tors combined with tradition, the latter not only conserving the valuable
types but actively stimulating their improvement. But all this has nothing
at all to do with the biological notion of heredity. (139140)
Clearly, the biological notion of heredity needs to be maintained. In the
next sentence, Johannsen points to the metaphorical use of evolution in
archaeology, sociology, etc. and claims that this involves nothing as to
genetics (140). The problems presented by terms moving from one context
to another and the problems of false analogs and metaphors all call for
guarding the tropic boundaries of genetics. This is not necessarily a claim that
only literal language is allowed within the bounds of genetics. Rather it is a
claim that the unwieldy movement and turning of phrases belongs outside
and are to be guarded against at the perimeters.
Casting Off the Artifice of Words: Defining the Gene
Unlike Darwins pangenesis theory, which was not intended to be real, the
status of the real for the genotype conception of heredity is of central
PRESCRIBING RHETORICAL WORK 41
importance in Johannsens address. Much attention is devoted to worrying
the boundaries of the real and shuttling competing conceptions to the out-
side of real genetics by identifying them with the misuse of figurative lan-
guage, appearances, pretending researchers and other charades of reality,
including ghosts and phantasms. And unlike the contrived and figurative
status of Darwins gemmules, a claim on reality is a defining feature of the
gene. This claim on reality is introduced by an explication of a relationship
between language and knowledge.
With the genotype occupying the rhetorical clearing that has been cre-
ated by the boundary work of demarcating competing theories, Johannsen
fixes a role for the gene by making explicit his theoretical stance on language
and knowledge:
It is a well-established fact that language is not only our servant, when we
wish to expressor even to concealour thoughts, but that it may also be
our master, overpowering us by means of the notions attached to the current
words. This fact is the reason why it is desirable to create a new terminol-
ogy in all cases where new or revised conceptions are being developed. Old
terms are mostly comprised by their application in antiquated or erroneous
theories and systems, from which they carry splinters of inadequate ideas,
not always harmless to the developing insight. (132)
As a commentary on rhetoric and knowledge, Johannsens statement is
reminiscent of the enlightenment ideal, perhaps best expressed by John
Locke, of knowledge that can and should be preserved from the impurities of
language and the contaminations of rhetoric. In arguing against the rhetoric
of Scholasticism, Locke suggests that we should cast off all the artifice and
fallacy of words and claims that pretending to the knowledge of things, [we]
hinder as much as we can the discovery of truth, by perplexing one another
all we can by a perverse use of those signs which we may make use of to con-
vey truth to one another (131). With a similar supposition that knowledge
and truth can thrive in a rhetorical space cleared of perverse or unwieldy lan-
guage, Johannsen asserts the need for a Locke-like vigilance against the con-
tamination of language that has been used in the service of old, erroneous, or
inadequate ideas.
Having now argued explicitly for the general virtues of rhetorical clear-
ingsor spaces in language designed to avoid the problems of language
Johannsen moves on to present the gene and some other fresh starts that
will, at least temporarily, hold at bay the rush of old and inadequate ideas.
Therefore I have proposed the terms gene and genotype and some fur-
ther terms, as phenotype and biotype, to be used in the science of genet-
ics. The gene is nothing but a very applicable little word, easily combined
with others, and hence it may be useful as an expression for the unit-fac-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 42
tors, elements or allelomorphs in the gametes, demonstrated by mod-
ern Mendelian researches. A genotype is the sum total of all the genes
in a gamete or in a zygote. (133)
Taken out of context, the comment that the gene is nothing but a very
applicable little word seems an earnest and humble beginning for what we now
know to be a powerful scientific construct, a precious economic unit, and a per-
suasive cultural icon. Indeed the spirit of humility is captured by many historians
who cite this passage while examining early conceptions of the gene. But in the
context of Johannsens speech, the approach to establishing a new term by first
minimizing it to mere applicability takes on the feel of a deliberate meiosisin
the rhetorical rather than biological sense of meiosiseven if the audience may
not be openly invited to partake in the irony of magnifying by way of minimiz-
ing. Johannsen does anything but minimize or trivialize the gene as he ushers the
term into a powerful and controlled rhetorical space, warning of the tendency of
words to overpower us and circumscribing the terms uses and applicability.
In setting limits on how the new term is to function, Johannsen defines
the gene. He does not define it in the sense of declaring the signification of
the word or by stating any essential nature or properties. In fact, he declares
the gene free of such denotative definition: As to the nature of the genes
it is as yet of no value to propose any hypothesis; but that the notion gene
covers a reality is evident from Mendelism (132133).
Historian Frederick Churchill, commenting on this statement, writes,
Poor child of science! He was wrong in believing he could avoid hypothe-
ses (14). But I do not see Johannsen as a poor child who so desperately
wanted to please the forces of science. Johannsen figures the gene to function
as a label for a material reality. Though the particular reality is not to be iden-
tified or hypothesized, it is set up to ground an otherwise abstract constella-
tion of functionsthat is, many characteristics of the organism are specified
in the gametes by means of special conditions, foundations, and dispositions
which are present in unique, separate, and thereby independent ways.
Johannsens move to figure the gene exemplifies what Kenneth Burke refers to
as the realistic application of metonymy. This use of metonymy is, for
Burke, the primary figurative strategy of scientific realism: to convey some
incorporeal or intangible state in terms of the corporeal or tangible (506).
Johannsen has cleared a space for the gene, placed it in the center of the
true genetics, and assigned it the metonymic function of scientific realism.
He puts that metonymic function to work right away, placing the gene in
opposition to phantasms, ghosts, and fictions.
Appearances versus Realities
The figure of the gene is introduced squarely within the space that Johannsen
has established for true genetics, established by cordoning it off from everyday
PRESCRIBING RHETORICAL WORK 43
language and unwieldy tropes. Before the gene is introduced, the genotype
conception is aligned with true genetics and the modern view of heredity.
Once genes are configured to function as real-but-undefined things, they can
become building blocks; the genotype gets defined as the sum total of all the
genes in the gametes or in a zygote (132133). The genotype is not only
the true and legitimate theoretical approach; it is a sum total of the funda-
mental units that have just been secured as realities. The genotype-pheno-
type distinction is cited by many historians of science as extremely important
to the development of genetics in the early century; it is more often cited as
Johannsens valuable contribution than is his naming of the gene. But in his
speech, Johannsen is not advancing the importance of the genotype-pheno-
type distinction as much as he is calling upon it to reinforce the rhetorical
work of demarcating an epistemic space for pure knowledge and genetic
truth. The genotype-phenotype distinction, in the address, serves as a trope
of epistemology.
After defining the genotype and distinguishing it from the transmission
conception and other problematic and hypothetical views, Johannsen
defines the phenotype: All types of organisms, distinguishable by direct
inspection or only by finer methods of measuring description, may be char-
acterized as phenotypes (134). With both defined, the genotype and pheno-
type are now prepared to function as another binary, reinforcing the distinc-
tion between the real study of genetics and illegitimate studies. It is not that
phenotypes are not real. In fact, they are the available observable objects:
Certainly phenotypes are real things; the appearing (not only apparent)
types or sorts of organisms are again and again the objects for scientific
research. All typical phenomena in the organic world are eo ipso phenotyp-
ical, and the description of the myriads of phenotypes as to forms, structures,
sizes, colors and other characters of the living organisms has been the chief
aim of natural history, which was ever a science of essentially morphologi-
cal-descriptive character. (134)
The problem that Johannsen associates with phenotypes comes when they
are mistaken as the true source of genetics knowledge and when they are
ascribed causality, amounting to confusing appearances with realities. Not
surprisingly, this brings us back to the sin of the transmission conception:
For the descriptive-morphological view the manifestations of the pheno-
types in different generations are the main point, and here the transmission-
conception immediately announces itself. Hence we may adequately define
this conception as a phenotype conception in opposition to the genotype
conception. (135)
This problem of confusing appearances with reality has not only led biologists
to posit theories of continuous variation, it is also at the root of the biome-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 44
tricians misguided, and evil, ways: [T]he wide-spread confusion of resem-
blance with genealogical relation is the root of much evilof which the
statistics of biometricians have given us some instances (137).
Once he has established the problems, and evils, of confusing appear-
ances and resemblances with reality, Johannsen can call upon the term phe-
notype conception, teaming it up with transmission to refer to concepts
and methods operating outside the realm of legitimate understandings of
genetic reality and genetic truth.
To reiterate, Johannsen is not dismissing the value of observing and ana-
lyzing phenotypes. He is, though, calling attention to the problem of stopping
at the observable screen of phenotypes and assuming that it is a total picture
of reality. Those who are caught up in the phenotype conception of heredity
are like the prisoners in Platos myth of the cave, prisoners who have been
chained since birth to only face a wall of shadows, which they take to be real-
ity itself. Just as the prisoner who breaks free from the chains is, after much
trouble and hard work, able then to see the sunlight as the real source of
truth, the true geneticist in Johannsens vision is able, through the correct
methodologies, to see the real source of genetics knowledge. The correct
methodologies are, as Johannsen points out, Mendelian analyses, pure-line
breeding, and hybridization experiments.
From working with the legitimate methodologies, Johannsens true
geneticists are able to move beyond the phenotypic screen of appearances to
see the genotype as that which causes the phenotypic effects. The genotype
is the source of true meaning. But the genotype is not simply an abstraction
in Johannsens argument, nor is it only a conception. The genotype is the sum
total of the genes, those applicable little words that Johannsen configured
to function as real things. Johannsen prescribed for genes the rhetorical work
of functioning as material facts, grounding an epistemology, deflecting
hypothesis and speculation, standing apart from the world of everyday lan-
guage, and serving as the true source of genetic meaning behind the world of
appearances. Unlike the sun in Platos myth, which was a metaphorical rep-
resentation of abstract truth, the source of true meaning in this genetics
world-view is a realm of reality that has been purged of metaphor.
CONCLUSION
In this chapter, I have set Darwins pangenesis and Johannsens genotype in
antithesis. The purpose of this antithesizing has been to illuminate the
rhetorical differences between a theory that was offered as provisional and
hypothetical and a theory that was introduced as laying claim to the real.
Both theories attempt to explain the means of biological heredity. But to read
each theory only in terms of what it explains not only restricts reading to a
form of evaluating whether the scientists got it right, but also eclipses the
PRESCRIBING RHETORICAL WORK 45
rhetorical goals that are written into the theories. Darwin inscribed in his
theory the tasks of synthesizing and of connecting facts with an intelligible
bond, a temporary intelligible bond that was not intended to acquire the
epistemic status of the facts it was connecting. Johannsen, on the other hand,
inscribed in his theory the task of clearing a rhetorical-epistemic space of
temporary intelligible bonds, hypotheses, and speculations, as well as unreli-
able everyday language and the artifice and fallacy of words. He set up his
genotype theory to upset the multiple antiquated and erroneous theories
and systems and to lay claim to the real.
Within the context of each argument, that for the theory of pangenesis
and that for the genotype conception of heredity, the rhetorical work pre-
scribed for gemmules and genes, respectively, becomes strikingly apparent.
Gemmules were to serve as temporary figures, almost figments, to help imag-
ine the possibilities for a synthesizing theory. They were introduced as a kind
of rhetorical widget; one neednt take them seriously (or literally) to grasp the
conceptual framework they were constructing. In contrast, genes were intro-
duced as fundamental units grounding a conceptual framework in an ultimate
reality. Though they were to remain undefined in their particulars, genes
were not to be as flimsy and disposable as the widget-like gemmules. Genes
were to resist hypothesis and speculation and to root a developing epistemol-
ogy in a material reality. They were to convey an abstract theoretical concept
in terms of the corporeal or tangible. Its not that genes were to function as if
they were real; genes were to function rhetorically as real things.
As illuminating as it may be, the antithesis of Darwin and Johannsen
may also (with its figurative influence) overshadow the similarities of these
two instances of scientific rhetoric. Darwin, in the culmination of a two-vol-
ume work on animal and plant variation, and Johannsen, in an address pre-
pared for the American Society of Naturalists, describe methodologies for
approaching the study of biological heredity. Each attends, with great care, to
explicating an exigence of his theory. Each explicates a rhetorical stance for
his methodology. And each includes metacommentary on the particular
claim on the tentativeness or certainty of their methodologies. Each attends
to prescribing the kind of rhetorical work that his theory and its components
are to do.
Because both Darwin and Johannsen express a self-consciousness about
their own rhetorical moves and both articulate theories of knowledge and
rhetoric, their texts offer opportunities for examining rhetorical theorizing as
a form of rhetorical praxis. Charles Bazerman, in Shaping Written Knowledge:
The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science, argues for, and
demonstrates the importance of, studying the history of rhetorical praxis.
Focusing on the history of the experimental article, and pursuing an under-
standing of the relationship among language, rhetoric, and the production of
knowledge, Bazerman emphasizes a study of rhetorical praxis over a study of
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 46
theory or metacommentary about rhetoric and knowledge. As he puts it, Too
often the history of rhetoric has meant the history of prescriptions and theo-
ries; the actual living practice has seemed less real than the prevailing theo-
ries (15). Darwin and Johannsens texts are both: they are each instances of
prescriptions for and theories of rhetoric and science; they are also instances
of actual living practice of scientific rhetoric.
In each casethat of Darwin, the case he makes for the need for gem-
mules and the rhetorical work prescribed for the gemmules, and that of
Johannsen, the case he makes for the need for genes and the rhetorical work
prescribed for genesthe argument for the new term and the rhetorical func-
tion of the new term are inseparable. The arguments, or justifications, for the
new terms are not merely the rhetorical context for the introductions, but are
rather part of the design of the new term. Darwins gemmules were designed
to figure a relationship between themselves and existing facts. Johannsens
genes were designed to stand apart from, and undo, existing theories.
Johannsen constructed an elaborate argument for a fresh new term that could
lay claim to a reality, ground an epistemology (or at the very least a method-
ology) in that reality, and assert a boundary between itself and other theories
and problematic uses of rhetoric.
PRESCRIBING RHETORICAL WORK 47
There is no consensus of opinion among geneticists as to what genes
arewhether they are real or purely fictitiousbecause at the level at
which the genetic experiments lie, it does not make the slightest difference
whether the gene is a hypothetical unit, or whether the gene is a material
particle.
T. H. Morgan, 1934
IN CHAPTER THREE, I examined the rhetorical work that the gene was com-
missioned to do. Johannsen introduced the term in 1909, not so much defin-
ing it as establishing it to work as a rhetorical figurea figure that grounds a
scientific concept in a material reality (without actually specifying that mate-
rial reality) and asserts a boundary between, on the one hand, that yet-to-be-
defined material reality and, on the other hand, the perversities of language,
conjecture, and rhetorical play.
The figurative work that Johannsen prescribed for the gene resonates
with the figurative work of genes in contemporary popular culture. In adver-
tisements, cartoons, and popular magazines, we can see genes figuring an
authoritative and undeniable reality, operating (even in the most playfully
figurative sense) as a source of meaning, without getting bogged down in the
specifics of what a gene actually is. When genes are enlisted in deterministic
discourseabout gender, race, or intelligencewe can see the same figura-
tive function of claiming a real material source of meaning in opposition to
arguments about the contingency of meaning. There is some irony here in
recognizing the figurative and iconic work of genes in popular culture. For,
though Johannsen prescribed for the gene the figurative work of claiming an
authoritative material reality, he also figured the gene as part of an argument
about the importance of establishing a specialized terminology, separate from
everyday language.
In this chapter, I turn to the popular press of the 1930s and 1940s to con-
sider some early indications of genes moving from the sphere of specialized
49
4
Genes on Main Street
and controlled terminology and taking hold in everyday language. Though
genes were apparently becoming familiar terms in the 1930s, the earliest
instances that I have found of genes doing the work of a cultural icon are a
set of articles that position the gene as a persuasive antithesis to the threat of
communist propaganda during the cold war. I read these genes-versus-com-
munism articles, paying close attention to the figurative work of genes. I
view the texts as primarily serving the epideictic function of affirming West-
ern cultural values (with science at the center) and disavowing the culture of
communism (with propaganda serving as the object of blame). My purpose
here is not to sort through what genes mean during the cold war, nor how
cold war politics and genetics influence one another, but rather to call atten-
tion to the figurative work of genes in a rhetorical context far removed from
the one in which Johannsen named the gene and far removed from the con-
texts that we normally associate with the control of scientific objects.
THE NATURE AND MEANI NG
OF GENES ARE UNSETTLED
Before getting to the rhetorical work of genes in the popular press in the first
half of the twentieth century, it is worth noting the unsettled reality/meaning
of genes among biologists and geneticists. In the first few decades of the twen-
tieth century, though research had been moving steadily toward identifying
genes with chromosomes, a discordant array of theories and hypotheses regard-
ing the nature and function of genes emerged and flourished. Geneticist Elof
Axel Carlson, in his The Gene: A Critical History, notes the historical and sci-
entific significance of Johannsens introduction of the gene as having the
flexibility to accommodate a broad range of attributes and definitions:
Johannsens gene was undefined. If to some geneticists he gave a concept
that appeared to lack a material reality, for others he freed the concept from
any one theory of action, specificity, or composition. It gave the gene con-
cept an opportunity to evolve and to take on, or discard definition. (22)
Not all researchers who worked with the concept were interested in
identifying the material form or specific nature of the gene. The flexibility of
the gene concept accommodated the broad range of perspectives, disciplinary
goals, and research agendas that characterized the life sciences in the first half
of the twentieth century. While some researchers worked to identify the
nature of the gene, others utilized the concept of the gene, needing no more
specificity than that provided by Johannsen (a useful little term that covers a
reality) in order to carry on their genetics research.
In 1934, T. H. Morgan, known for his studies of fruit flies and his major
contributions to the chromosome theory of genes, articulated his indifference
about what genes actually are:
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 50
Now that we locate [genes] in the chromosomes are we justified in regard-
ing them as material units; as chemical bodies of a higher order than mole-
cules? . . . There is no consensus of opinion among geneticists as to what
genes arewhether they are real or purely fictitiousbecause at the level
at which the genetic experiments lie, it does not make the slightest differ-
ence whether the gene is a hypothetical unit, or whether the gene is a mate-
rial particle. In either case the unit is associated with a specific chromo-
some, and can be localized there by purely genetic analysis. Hence, if the
gene is a material unit, it is a piece of a chromosome; if it is a fictitious unit,
it must be referred to a definite location in a chromosomethe same place
as on the other hypothesis. Therefore, it makes no difference in the actual
work in genetics which point of view is taken. (qtd. in Olby, Path 103)
I am tempted to read Morgans statement as a reaffirmation of the figurative
function of genes, as an argument for preserving the genes capacity for
rhetorical work. Having seen Johannsens elaborate argument about the con-
trol of language and rhetoric and in preparation for seeing the rhetorical work
of genes in other contexts, I am tempted to find in Morgans statement a
claim about the importance of rhetorical and figurative work in the service of
the production of scientific knowledge. But a more reliable reading is to see
Morgan as not concerning himself with the work of a rhetorical figure but
rather as strategically avoiding the complex question of the meaning of genes
so as to get on with what he saw as the important work of genetics.
It is important to recognize that Morgans sense that it mattered little if
the gene was material or fiction was not representative of all geneticists of his
time. Historian Raphael Falk characterizes the genetic landscape prior to
the 1950s as dominated by a dialectic between the instrumentalist and the
realist treatments of the gene (321). The instrumentalists were those who,
like Morgan, found the gene most useful as a notational device for capturing
the facts recorded in breeding and hybridization studies (321). The realists
were those who were committed to the material existence of genes and
worked to specify genes physicochemical properties.
A primary example of a realist in this instrumentalistrealist dialectic
was Herman J. Muller, who focused his research on specifying the genes
physicochemical properties, or capturing the material reality of genes. This
was not a straightforward task; he approached it by narrowing down the func-
tional properties of genes, limiting the possibilities of what a gene could be.
He attributed to genes three central properties: 1. Autonomous self-replica-
tion; 2. Initiation of specific products that effect the development and per-
formance of organisms properties; and 3. The faculty to mutate (Falk 323).
Though his approach was extremely influential and his definition of central
properties widely accepted, Muller expressed by 1950 the difficulty of nailing
down the materiality of the gene:
GENES ON MAIN STREET 51
[T]he real core of gene theory still appears to lie in the deep unknown. That
is, we have as yet no actual knowledge of the mechanism underlying that
unique property which makes a gene a geneits ability to cause the syn-
thesis of another structure like itself . . . in which even the mutations of the
original gene are copied. . . . We do not know of such things yet in chem-
istry. (Rheinberger 220)
The different approaches to the gene represented by Morgan and Muller,
along with Mullers statement about the unknown mechanism and properties
of the gene, can provide us with a sense of the elusive thingness (or material
reality) of the gene within the field of genetics at the middle of the century.
Even for those who considered the specific material properties of the gene
important and the reality of the gene worth delimiting in material terms,
there was not a stable sense of what that material reality was.
GENES BECOME PART OF AN EVERYDAY VOCABULARY
During the time period for which Falk identifies a dialectic between instru-
mentalist and realist views dominating the genetic landscape, genes began
to make their appearances in American weekly news magazines. In 1925,
genes became for the first time an index heading in the Readers Guide to
Periodical Literature, indicating that the term was becoming, if not an every-
day term, enough of a generally recognized term for cataloguing publications.
For the first few years that genes served as an index heading, they point
only to articles at the more specialized and technical end of the spectrum of
the popular press (e.g., to reports in the journals Science and Scientific Ameri-
can). Until the 1930s, articles intended for more general audiences are
indexed under the heading heredity, and sometimes genetics.
In 1934, Time published a brief article titled Genes on Main Street. The
article introduced the gene as an elusive object that scientists were pursuing:
Like the electron, the gene has eluded the eye of Science while manifesting
itself in its works. Gene is the name by which geneticists agreed to call the
mysterious heredity-transmitting agents strung along the length of the chro-
mosome. As minute streaks in body cells, the chromosomes were visible
under the microscope; their component parts were not. Last week a long
step toward visual study of genes seemed to have been taken by Dr. Calvin
Blackman Bridges. (26)
Here, the gene is figured as a material thing that has simply been very diffi-
cult for scientists to see, presumably because it is so tiny. Toward the end of
the article, the language gets a little bit looser around the visibility of genes:
Dr. Bridges did not identify either bands or cylinders with the genes them-
selves, but by last week three known and one unknown gene had been traced
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 52
to a set of four bands. The article then ends on the upbeat note of Dr.
Bridges, who says that other genes would soon be as easily located as the
houses on Main Street (24).
By the late 1930s, more general articles start showing up in American
popular magazines and are indexed under the heading genes in the Readers
Guide. During the 1930s and 1940s, Time and Newsweek published a handful
of articles that report on genetics research and that use the term gene. Each
article provides some definition or introduction of the term. The definitions
range from the stable and certainthe units that pass along family traits
from generation to generation (Newsweek 1939)to the more qualified
expressions of knowledge-in-the-making: but no man can swear he has ever
seen a gene. . . . It is generally assumed that the genes are single big protein
molecules, but that is not certain either. And the mechanism of the genes
heredity control remains obscure (Time 1940).
Despite the definitions and introductions to the concept of genes, the
headlines of the articlesGenes Seen?, Mans Mysterious Genes, Lot-
tery of Genessuggest that genes had by that time acquired enough pop-
ular currency to reach a lay audience, at least as a representation of scientific
research that can draw public attention. The playfulness of the titles also sug-
gests that genes were creeping into a zone of what John Locke would iden-
tify with the perverse use of words (131).
By the late 1940s, the frequency of gene-focused articles for a lay audi-
ence was rising. Genes were beginning to do some iconographic cultural
work. If we can take the Readers Guide, together with Time and Newsweek,
as a barometer, it appears that by the middle of the twentieth century, the
term gene had made its way into the arena of what Johannsen had termed
every-day language.
Though genes were acquiring popular currency and were being recog-
nized, at least by the compilers of the Readers Guide, as a topic of public dis-
course, the meaning of genes was no more settled in public or popular dis-
course than it was in scientific discourse. Celeste Condits analysis The
Meanings of the Gene: Public Debates About Human Heredity maps the terrain of
public meanings of genetics, emphasizing the historical flux of meaning and the
influence of the topoi of determination, discrimination, and perfectionism.
Actually, the gene of Condits title is a synecdoche, a part-for-the-whole rep-
resentation of genetic discourse. She is not as concerned with the nuances of
the particular meanings of the term gene as she is with the topoi that charac-
terize twentieth-century public debate about genetics. But her analysis, includ-
ing her own figurative use of the gene in her title, suggests that the gene
was as flexible and plastic a term in public and popular discourse as it was in the
disciplines of the life sciences. In the following analysis, I am less concerned
with the particular meanings of the gene than with the effect of the plas-
ticity of the term to accommodate a range of meanings. With the background
GENES ON MAIN STREET 53
of the fluctuations of meanings of genes, I turn now to examine the figurative
work of the term in the context of a popular press article doing the epideictic
work of pitting communist values against Western values.
COMMUNI ST PROPAGANDA VERSUS GENES
On January 17, 1949, Time published a brief article that enlists genes to work
against the international threat of communismmore specifically, against
what is characterized as the forces of propaganda pushing outward from the
Soviet presses. The Time article reports on a series of claims being made
some in the Soviet newspaper Pravda, some in official Communist publica-
tions, and some simply made by the Russians. Time characterizes the
Soviet claims as propaganda and, because of the potential to sway people
around the world toward communism, as an international threat. In opposi-
tion to the shady work of propaganda, the article presents the gene as a
foundational object that epitomizes the Western claim on truth, the value of
science, and the promise of technological progress rooted in science.
The article is called Cut to Pattern. It appears in the science section, a
regular feature of the weekly magazine, usually consisting of two or three
announcements of scientific research results or technological developments
described in celebratory prose, framed as breakthroughs from within a scien-
tific community, and explicitly linked, usually in the closing paragraph, to a
public benefit. In contrast to the generic format, this genetics-versus-commu-
nism article is not poised to celebrate a breakthrough or the publication of
research results, but rather sets out to characterize a rhetorical threat, rising up
on the outside of legitimate science. The article begins: For months a torrent
of science propaganda has sluiced from Moscows presses. Murky with Marxist
doubletalk, it praises Soviet science, denounces Western science as the tool of
capitalism and the slave of doctrinal errors, such as idealism and formalism
(40). With the clarifying support of intensifying modifiers, the science pro-
paganda is introduced as more than the antithesis of the value of Western sci-
ence; it is the opponent, if not yet enemy, of our scientific values.
The oxymoron of science propaganda is the starting point for the arti-
cle, a strong articulation of that which is outside legitimacy, an introduction
to, rather than a justification for, disparagement. With propaganda one of
the key organizing tropes for demarcating a boundary of freedom in Ameri-
can postWorld War II media, the amalgam science propaganda lays the
groundwork for the sardonic tone to get to work on making outlandish any
suggestion that science could be a tool of capitalism or aligned with any ide-
alism or formalism.
The opening paragraph establishes the style, the structure, and the epi-
deictic agenda of the article. The remainder of the article is dedicated to
denouncing propaganda and communism, affirming Western science and
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 54
Western values, and maintaining a clear, bold boundary between them. In
other words, Cut to Pattern is not an instance of forensic rhetoric; it is not
sorting through the legitimacy of truth claims, nor is it setting out to prove
that the Soviet claims are wrong or that the Western approach is right.
Instead, this is a crisply executed blame-and-praise scenario. It follows a pat-
tern of using powerful examples to create a sense of an outside, or illegiti-
macy, and then laying claim to a center of legitimacy. Not wholly unlike the
address in which Johannsen introduced his terminology, at the center of
legitimate science is the prize figure of the gene.
In the second paragraph of the Cut to Pattern article, the boundary
between science propaganda and Western science is efficiently affirmed
with the extraction of specific claims from the Soviet press:
Last week mighty Pravda (which claims 2,000,000 copies daily) gave three
of its 24 columns to a claim that the principle of conservation of matter,
attributed by Westerners to Lavoisier (1775), was really discovered by an
18th Century Russian poet-scientist-philosopher named Mikhail
Lomonosov. This week the Russians claimed again that a Russian flew the
first power-driven heavier-than-air machine 21 years before the Wright
brothers got around to their 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. (40)
Here, the pairings of the Soviet Russian claims and Western counterpoints
are pithy examples for efficiently intensifying the boundary between science
propaganda and Western science. Lavoisier and the Wright brothers are
introduced as such incontrovertible figures that any denial of their impor-
tance is not even worthy of our consideration; they are simply landmarks for
locating blame.
In the sentence that follows, the examples give way to a longer list of
Western claims that are then able to align the SovietWestern boundary with
the boundary between fantasy and truth:
In recent years, official Communist publications have claimed that the
incandescent lamp, the radio, the steam engine, penicillin, and many basic
discoveries in theoretical sciences were Russian products. A few of these
claims have shreds of truth to them; most are the wildest fantasy. (40)
With the additional condemnation of wildest fantasy, the Soviet claims are
now all the more dismissible. But again, the purpose of the article is not to
simply dismiss or discredit the Soviet claims. Rather the Soviet claims are
being presented as representative of communist propaganda. As propaganda,
the claims warrant more attention than simply fantasies masquerading as
truth; they are to be seen as threats:
Light from Russia. Foreigners who keep track of the claims, and the prodigal
expenditure of newspaper space on them, are inclined to doubt that they are
GENES ON MAIN STREET 55
signs of nationalism. These days Communism is an internationalist mood
and the claims of the Russian propagandists are widely pushed abroad. The
purpose may be to convince prospective foreign proselytes that Russia,
through the years, has been a source of scientific light and not (as was gen-
erally the case) a dismal swamp of scientific darkness. From this premise it
is easy to argue that the U.S.S.R. is still a source of scientific light, and thus
a sort of shrine of wisdom for the world. (40)
Within the span of three paragraphs, Soviet claims of scientific knowl-
edge have been apprehended, identified as rogue science stories, and classi-
fied as a significant international political threat. With the fast-paced style
typical of Time, propaganda of the Soviet presses has been given a sense of
momentum and exigency.
1
This is where the potency of the gene comes in.
Hope for the Backward. Genetics probably offers the Soviet authorities one
of their trickiest methods of posing as a source of scientific light and hope.
Western genetics, following Mendel and Morgan, teaches that the inherited
characteristics of living organisms are largely controlled by genes passed
down from parents to offspring. During sexual reproduction the genes are
shuffled, but except in the case of accidental mutations they are not
changed. Lysenko teaches that the form of an organism is determined by the
environment in which it develops. He claims to have modified plant species
merely by moving them around Russia. (Western geneticists have tried &
tried, with no success, to repeat his experiments.) (40)
There are two opposing viewpoints represented here: Western genetics
teaches that inheritance is largely controlled by genes and Lysenko teaches that
an organism is determined by the environment. The Western view gets more
nuanced languagelargely controlled bywhile the Soviet view gets the
overly forceful language of determination.
There is a bit of a sneer running through the sentences about Lysenko,
his teaching, his claims, and his irreproducible experiments. He was a sneer-
worthy guy. But before turning to Lysenko, I would like to emphasize the
antithesis of environmental determinism and the control of genes. Note that
the genes are not presented as a hypothesis, a concept, or a teaching or a
perspective; they are things that control, get passed down, get shuffled, and
do not change. Here, within this brief passage of the popular press, we do not
need to know much about Lysenko (except that he was Russian and on the
other side of the ideological divide), and we do not need to know much about
what Muller called the real core of gene theory, to see that it is the thing-
ness of genes that enables them to do the rhetorical work of opposing the
view of the environment as deterministic and deprecating Soviet claims. In
an argument that is almost a parody of Johannsens genotype argument
(asserting the gene as the fundamental material in opposition to the illegiti-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 56
mate theories and unruly plays of language), the gene is presented as the
most powerful argument against the propaganda of Soviets posing as a source
of scientific light and hope.
THE SOVI ET WHO DENI ED THE EXI STENCE OF GENES
In the Time article of 1949, Trofim Lysenko is a convenient antihero helping
to dramatize the reality and importance of genes. In contemporary genetics
textbooks, Lysenko is still cited for emphasizing, by way of negative example,
the value of the scientific method and the value of genes. Because of his anti-
thetical role in genetics, he is worth considering as a historical figure and
again (as in the example Ill discuss in the next section) as a rhetorical figure.
He is a representative figure, abridging the much larger and far more complex
story of the clash between Soviet politics and genetics research. Lysenkoism
is a common name for the trend, extending from the 1930s through the
1950s, of Soviet political forces overpowering and eventually banning the
study of genetics.
Lysenko was an agronomist, with very little formal education, who rose
to power and acquired positions of scientific and agricultural leadership
within the Stalinist regime of Soviet Russia. On his rise to power, he pub-
lished bogus experimental research, denounced genetic theories that contra-
dicted communist doctrine, and articulated views of heredity and biology
that supported, by way of emphasizing environmental influences, views of
communist party values.
2
Historian of science Loren R. Graham characterizes
Lysenko as:
a simple agronomist who developed ideas about plants not very different
from those of many practical selectionists of the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, but who was able to promote those ideas to an unher-
alded prominence because of the political and social situation in which he
found himself. An extremely shrewd but basically uneducated man, he
learned how to capitalize on the opportunities that the centralized bureau-
cracy and ideologically charged intellectual atmosphere presented. Seeing
that his ideas would fare better if they were dressed in the garb of dialecti-
cal materialism, with the help of a young ideologist he recast his arguments
in Marxist terms. (Graham 124)
Lysenkos power pinnacled at the meeting of the Soviet Unions Acad-
emy of Agricultural Sciences in JulyAugust of 1948 (five months before the
Time article previously described). Though many members of the agricultural
academy had been opposed to Lysenko and his views, just prior to the con-
ference, Stalin appointed Lysenko and several of Lysenkos supporters to the
academy. Stalin also announced that the meeting will be devoted to the dis-
cussion of a report by Academician T. D. Lysenko, On the Situation in
GENES ON MAIN STREET 57
Soviet Biological Science (Soyfer 181182). The speech was evidently
edited by Stalin. The central part of Lysenkos report bore the heading, The
Two Worlds [i.e., socialist and capitalist]Two Ideologies in Biology
(Soyfer 184). Reports of the speeches and discussions that were published in
the Moscow paper Pravda congealed the support of Lysenkos position and
support of controlling biological science in favor of Stalinist values. The
meeting ended with an official ban on genetics research and genetics teach-
ings that did not expressly support the values of the Stalin regime.
According to geneticist Valery Soyfers account of the meeting, much of
the discussion in support of Lysenkos position hinged on denying the mate-
rial reality of genes. One participant expressed that no special heredity-
bearing substance exists, any more than phlogiston, the fire-bearing sub-
stance, or the caloric, the heat substance. Another explained, Only a
scientist determined to commit scientific suicide could conceive of the gene
as an organ, a gland, with a developed morphology and a very specific struc-
ture (Soyfer 184).
According to Graham, Lysenkos writings on the gene were very con-
fused. Several years before the 1948 meeting, he had written, we deny that
the geneticists and cytologists will see genes under the microscope. In light
of understandings of genes in the middle of the century outside of the Soviet
Union, as well as contemporary understandings of genes, Lysenko was not
completely off the mark to deny that genes could be seen under a microscope.
And, in comparison with the view expressed earlier by T. H. Morgan that it
mattered little to genetics research if the gene was material or fiction, calling
the gene a figment of imagination is not as outlandish as it may appear on the
surface of a Time article.
My point here is certainly not to resurrect Lysenko and his flawed
research. Instead I want, first, to note that the flexibility of the gene concept
made it a likely target for those who, working within the situation of Soviet
biological science, were compelled to denounce foreign ideas. And, sec-
ond, to note that, during a time when the nature of the gene was still unset-
tled among geneticists, in the every-day language of the American popular
press, the gene could be an effective figure for establishing anyone who
denied its existence as a villain and for concisely drawing lines of ideological
conflict. In the next section, I turn to another example that uses Lysenkos
position to make the possibility of seeing the gene significant and worthy of
media attention.
FI GURI NG WHAT MAY BE GENES
Less than a week after the publication of the Time article, Newsweek pub-
lished its own communism-versus-genetics article. I turn to the Newsweek
article here not only because it offers another articulation of the antithesis of
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 58
Soviet values and genes but also because this article goes a step further in fig-
uring the gene as an iconic material reality. This article, entitled Genes:
Sliced and Pictured, is more closely aligned with the popular-press genre of
a report on recently published scientific research. It reports on a study at the
University of California that used an extremely powerful microscope to
examine chromosomes, revealing what may be genes. The main topic is the
geneor at least the pursuit to see geneswith the antithesis of Soviet and
Western science serving as the framework, establishing the public signifi-
cance of the research.
Here, the Soviet-Western antithesis that was articulated in the Time arti-
cle is expressed more forcefully as an antithesis between Lysenkos denial of
genes and the reality of genes. The article opens:
It is the view of Trofim Lysenko, president of the Lenin Academy of Agri-
cultural Sciences and leader of the current purge of Russian geneticists who
agree with Western geneticists, that the gene which controls heredity is
just a figment of their [bourgeois scientists] imagination. The official
Communist doctrine supports Lysenkos idea that plants and animals are
instead molded by their environment. (44)
As described in the previous section, Lysenko was a master at articulating views
of heredity and agriculture that supported communist doctrine. Here, his denial
of the reality of genes becomes an epitomizing figure of communist doctrine.
With the denial of the gene articulated, the article then swiftly turns to
assert the foundational status of the gene:
West of the Iron Curtain the entire science of genetics rests on the concept
of the gene. It is the unit carrier of hereditary characteristics, such as the
blueness of the eye or the pattern of kernels in a corn cob. The gene is
transmitted to the offspring through sperm and ovum, and nothing that
happens to the parents during their lifetime (short of an atomic ray that
gets right through to the gene itself) can affect the inheritance of the next
generation. (44)
A foundational status is first assigned to the concept of the gene. In three sen-
tences, the gene incrementally moves from being a concept to a unit carrier of
characteristics and finally to being a thing in itself. In the final sentence, as
something that can be transmitted unaltered, unless a ray gets to the thing
itself, the expression of the gene takes advantage of the terms metonymic
tendency. (Recall that it was the flawed sense of heredity as transmission that
Johannsen used as part of his call for the specialized terminology of genes.)
Within two brief paragraphs, a controversy over the reality of the gene
has been figured as an East-West conflict, with those east of the Iron Cur-
tain represented by Lyseknos view of the gene as a figment and those west
of the curtain understanding the genes scientific value and its reality.
GENES ON MAIN STREET 59
Lysenko and the figure of the gene do the figurative work of grounding the
antithesis and making the contrast stand out in stark relief for a popular audi-
ence. Again, as in the Time article, a reference to the gene is doing more
than referring to a scientific concept or a biological entity; it is performing
the rhetorical work of laying claim to a material reality and opposing the ide-
ological arguments of others.
Though genes are fundamental to the science of genetics and though
they stand in stark contrast to communist ideology, they have been, the arti-
cle goes on to explain, invisible and elusive. The elusiveness of genes com-
pletes the exigency; the article can then move on to presenting a report of
research that seems to harden the gene, or make it more undeniably real. The
work of Daniel Pease, Richard Baker, and an electron microscope is framed
as a potential scientific breakthrough with, the article suggests, the serendip-
itous effect of affirming the reality that the Soviets deny. In the end, the arti-
cle makes a move to downgrade its own engagement in ideological warfare,
using the conclusion to suggest that proving the Marxists wrong is really not
as important as our own progress after all:
If further research shows that these are beyond any doubt the actual genes
of heredity, the California discovery will mean much more than settling any
Marxist allegations about a figment of the imagination. It will enable
geneticists to work more directly in the control of plant and animal evolu-
tion to provide better food supplies for the world. (44)
The body of the article explains, in fairly accessible terms, the prelimi-
nary research that Pease and Baker published the same week in the journal
Science. Pease and Bakers investigations involved using an electron micro-
scope and analyzing electron micrographstwo-dimensional visual images
profiling the densities of molecular materials. Electron micrography was, at
the time, a rising field, supported largely by private and public research funds
that were increasingly being redirected from physics research to biology and
genetics research (Rasmussen). In other words, the images of electron micro-
graphs held promise not only on the pages of Newsweek, but also for those
influencing the institutional momentum of research at the time. Though
Pease and Baker do not show up in most histories of genetics, the influence
of electron micrographs certainly does.
In the text of their Science article, titled Preliminary Investigations of
Chromosomes and Genes with the Electron Microscope, Pease and Baker
adopt a speculative and suggestive tone, interpreting areas of dense matter
that appear on the micrographs as particles that may be identifiable, with fur-
ther research, as genes. The Newsweek text is a bit more assertive, although
not necessarily within the body of the article. Following the bold introduction
establishing the ideological significance of Pease and Bakers work, the con-
nection between the genes of the opening paragraphs and the observations of
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 60
the electron micrographs is expressed in a direct quote from Pease and Baker:
In view of these conclusions, it seems reasonable to believe that the discrete
particles we have seen are genes (Newsweek 44; Pease and Baker 22).
In the Newsweek article, the combination of the ideological introduction
and the scientists suggestion powerfully presents the possibility that West of
the Iron Curtain, the science of genetics was on the verge of seeing real genes.
Three years later, researchers would benefit from electron micrography to iden-
tify the structure of DNA. The structure of DNA would cast light on how genes
work, and indeed open up vast new fields of research. But it would also make
the notion that one could see genes if they simply had a powerful enough
microscope seem rather simplistic and nave. In the next chapter I address the
consequences of the structure of DNA on understandings of genes. Here, my
point is to note how, within the text of the article, the gene is figured as a pow-
erful cultural icon and as an icon that was on the verge of coming into view.
The text is persuasive in figuring the gene. More persuasive, though, is
the photograph accompanying the text (Figure 1). It shows Pease and Baker
GENES ON MAIN STREET 61
FIGURE 1
Photo accompanying Genes: Sliced and Pictured
(Newsweek, January 24, 1949, 44)
(University of Southern California University Archives)
posing in a research posture with an unidentified woman looking on. The
photograph has the look of many cold-war era media photos, with a large
piece of technological equipment (the super-microscope) occupying the
center of the picture. The caption confirms the technological promise visible
in the snapshot: Through a super-microscope, Pease and Baker caught what
may be genes. One of the researchers in the photograph poses as if he is
examining the equipment or the output of the equipment. A small inset pic-
ture suggests itself as what we might see if we looked through the super-micro-
scope: an image of fuzzy elements (presumably chromosomes) in a circular
frame (as if we are seeing it through the lens of a microscope) with a smaller
dark circle calling attention to a little dark dot.
The inset picture in the Newsweek article does not really look like the
images of electron micrographs in Pease and Bakers report in Science. But the
picture does do the representative work of providing a suggestive and legible
depiction of a technologically produced image of biological particles that may
indeed be genes. In contrast to the speculative and suggestive tone of Pease
and Baker, the bold circle on the picture makes a very strong claim. Though
the connection is left unarticulated, this little dark dot is presumably a gene
that may have been caught by the researchers using the microscope. The
caption, photograph, and little dark dot on the micrograph together form a
strongly suggestive argument about the material reality of the gene.
From a contemporary perspective, the Newsweek photograph has the
overly staged look of many media photographs of the cold war era. The neat-
and-tidy style of dress, the postures of scientists at work with a supportive
woman looking on, and the prominence and promise of technology all appear
rather quaint in retrospect. The figurative display of what may be genes
strikes me as almost sweet, with its nave and earnest embrace of modernistic
hope and technological idealism. Read against a scientific context in which,
as Herman Muller would put it a year later, the real core of gene theory still
appears to lie in the deep unknown, the representation of the gene as on the
verge of visibility seems a bold (and perhaps irresponsible) simplification for
a popular audience. But the picture is not simply quaint or sweet, nor is it
simplistic. A visual representation of scientific research, appearing in the
popular press, antithesizing communist ideology, the picture is historically
and culturally rich. It is legible as a site in the pre-digital hypertext of techno-
science in the middle of the twentieth century. Following Donna Haraways
figurative use of the Internet for mapping the wealth of connections that
constitute a specific, finite, material-semiotic universe called technoscience
(Modest 3), we can read the picture as a representative node amid cultural,
historical, and narrative trends. Among the trends running through the pic-
ture are the importance of the promise of technology in the cold war era, the
public disillusionment with physics after the atomic bomb driving a shift to
the promise of genetics, the funding of big science in response to the cold war,
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 62
the role of the popular media in affirming research directions, the troubling
of gender in science and public institutions, and the influence of propaganda
wars on the growing importance of being able to see genes.
Borrowing Haraways Internet metaphor encourages me to see possibili-
ties for reading both culturally and rhetorically. For a cultural reading, I take
the picture as a starting point, reading outward to read/map the context of
social, historical, and technoscientific forces. For a rhetorical reading, I see
those hypertextual forces as holding the picture steady, providing a stable site
for reading the rhetorical work, inside the text, of the figuring of the genes.
The little circle in the picture is a figurative representation of what may
be genes, and a visual metonymy of the cultural importance of materializing
the gene. The figuring renders the gene as within reach of the scientists.
Within the text, the figuring of the gene does the work of affirming a mater-
ial foundation of truth, affirming a stable knowledge-making enterprise in
opposition to the ideological foes represented by Lysenko. Though depicting
what may be genes is a heavy-handed figurative move, it coincides with the
figurative inclinations of the gene as an applicable little word that undeni-
ably covers a reality.
CONCLUSION
Though Johannsen established the gene to function as a specialized term
apart from everyday language, by the late 1940s, before the concept had
become affixed to the material of DNA, the gene had not only become part
of the everyday vocabulary of popular media but was beginning to serve as an
icon of material reality grounding an ideology of scientific progress. The Time
and Newsweek articles call upon the gene to lay claim to the values of West-
ern science and to oppose the ideological threat of communism and commu-
nist propaganda. In the Newsweek article, the gene is figured as a heretofore
elusive entity, undeniably a reality, but a reality which has not yet been visi-
ble. The presentation of the gene is reinforcing the promise that genes are
soon to be as easily located as the houses on Main Street. Clearly the
impending visibility and impending reality of genes had become important
outside the specialized research circles of geneticists, outside the dialectic
between the instrumentalist and realist treatments of the gene.
Though the material reality of genes had not been identified, both the
Time and Newsweek articles rely on the thingness of genes to do the rhetori-
cal work of opposing Soviet ideology. It is the metonymic function that
Johannsen prescribed for genes, the function of claiming a material reality
without having to define it, that allows the gene figure to work as a powerful
rhetorical agent in the everyday language of the popular-press texts.
In the discussion of the Time Cut to Pattern article, I alluded to the
boundary work of antithesizing Western scientific realism and communist
GENES ON MAIN STREET 63
propaganda as being analogous to the boundary work in Johannsens argument
for the name gene. In Johannsens argument, the gene is introduced as the
central foundational element grounding the genotype theory of heredity,
introduced in part to upset the transmission conceptions of heredity and to
disrupt the unreliable play of language and rhetoric. Similarly, in the Time arti-
cle, the gene is presented as a centerpiece, or rather a foundational element,
grounding the legitimacy of Western science. This foundational element
opposes the illegitimate rhetorical forces of Soviet propaganda. The gene is
not presented as a Western theory or viewpoint in opposition to a Soviet the-
ory or viewpoint. Instead, the gene, in all its impending reality, is ushered in
to undo the Soviet views and to disrupt the most insidious form of rhetoric.
The analogy here is suggestive of the rhetorical boundary work that genes
can do. In the next chapter I pursue this suggestiveness further by considering
genes doing a different kind of boundary worknot boundary work that is
merely analogous to boundary work within Johannsens text but boundary
work that is an integral part of genes as scientific and rhetorical objects.
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 64
The more molecular biologists learn about genes, the less sure they seem
to become of what a gene really is. Knowledge about the structure and
functioning of genes abounds, but also, the gene has become curiously
intangible . . . genes begin to look like hardly definable temporary products
of a cells physiology. Often they have become amorphous entities of
unclear existence ready to vanish into the genomic or developmental
background at any time.
Beurton, Falk, and Rheinberger
IN CHAPTER FOUR, I considered examples of genes in the popular press.
At a time when the nature and materiality of genes were unsettled among
geneticists, the gene started to function in the every-day setting of the pop-
ular press as a useful little word that covers a reality. The genes in the
popular press articles do work that is analogous to the work that Johannsen
set up his genes to do four decades earlier. Johannsens genes, figured as
material realities, were introduced to upset competing theories and untrust-
worthy tropes. Similarly, the examples of the cold war popular-press articles
show that the metonymic function of genes lends well to the ideological work
of asserting and affirming the values of Western science, especially in oppo-
sition to the most iniquitous forms of rhetoric: propaganda.
In this chapter, instead of seeing everyday genes as analogous to scien-
tific genes, I seek to connect them by theorizing genes as rhetorical objects
objects that move from scientific to everyday contexts and back again. To do
so, I consider genes in light of theories, from multiple disciplines in the
humanities and social sciences, of rhetorical figures, boundary objects, and
epistemic things. After calling upon these theories, I turn to the mid-century
scientific papers of James Watson and Francis Crick. Wastson and Cricks
analysis of the structure of DNA is often cited as a watershed moment in
shifting understandings of genes. Though their work had profound implica-
tions for the understandings of genes (and for the way histories of genes are
65
5
Genes, Figures, Things, Objects
told), in their papers Watson and Crick do not address the gene as an object
of scientific inquiry as much as they call upon the persuasive rhetorical func-
tions of the gene to make claims for the importance of their research. Wat-
son and Cricks papers then provides an opportunity for linking theories of
epistemic thingsespecially useful in the historical and social analysis of sci-
encewith theories of rhetorical figures.
GENES AS RHETORI CAL FI GURES
In establishing the name gene, Johannsen figured it to function as a mate-
rial reality whose nature was to be left undefined. In making a case for his new
terminology, Johannsen suggested: the gene is nothing but a very applicable
little word (132133, emphasis added). But the twentieth-century history of
the gene as a scientific concept, genes as material things, and genes as cul-
tural icons invite us to recognize that the gene has all the power of a very
applicable little word. Even within the context of his extended argument for
a new vocabulary in support of the genotype conception of history, we saw
that Johannsen invested in genes a powerful argument about how to reason
about genes and about relationships among biological material, knowledge,
and language.
Johannsen introduced the gene as an epitome of his larger argument,
or set of arguments, that he outlined in The Genotype Conception of
Heredity. In figuring it to function as a metonymy, he made the gene a very
applicable little summary of an argument for talking about genetic factors in
terms of material realities and affirming the reality underlying Mendelian
research. In outlining the guidelines and limits for its usage, particularly the
need to resist hypotheses as to its nature, Johannsen was also summarizing his
more extended arguments about separating scientific and everyday language,
managing hypotheses, and using language to manage the known and
unknown of genetics.
Saying that it epitomizes a more extended argument, I am describing the
gene in terms of Jeanne Fahnstocks sense of rhetorical figures in science. In
her extensive analysis, Rhetorical Figures in Science, Fahnestock demonstrates
the work of rhetorical figures in shaping and stabilizing knowledge within sci-
entific contexts. The rhetorical figures (e.g., antimetabole, antithesis, grada-
tio, incrementum, etc.) function as technologies of reasoning in that they
epitomize lines of reasoning. Just as a metaphor epitomizes an analogy, the
figures epitomize patterns of reasoning. Fahnestock explains the notion of
epitomizing a line of reasoning as similar to abstracting:
What does it mean to say that a verbal figure epitomizes a line of reasoning?
An epitome, from the Greek verb meaning to cut short or cut upon, is in
one sense a summary, an abstract containing all the essential parts of a larger
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 66
work or text, and in a slightly different sense, it is a representative or exem-
plary selection from and then substitution for something longer. The figure,
then, is a verbal summary that epitomizes a line of reasoning. It is a con-
densed or even diagram-like rendering of the relationship among a set of
terms, a relationship that constitutes the argument and that could be
expressed at a greater length. (Figures 24)
It is in the stylistic concision of a recognizable figure that a pattern of
reasoning or scientific argument can gain great force. Fahnestock examines a
range of scientific arguments, contemporary and historical, to show that, by
epitomizing lines of argument, rhetorical figures are integral to the construc-
tion of scientific thought. She shows, for example, the work of antitheses
pushing concepts apart, especially forceful in anatomy and physiology studies
of males and females in which observable differences become the material for
constructing the male/female antithesis as an either/or cut rather than as a
difference in degree on a connected scale (80). Other examples demonstrate
the work of incremental figures (incrementum and gradatio) giving shape to
arguments in paleontology and evolutionary studies.
In her discussion of incremental figures, Fahnestock notes the work that
the figures can do in making a case for the existence of something that is not
yet known. In addition to forming a series to support a claim, an arguer can
also present an incomplete series along with a principle of series formation,
implicit or explicit, and argue a new member or members into place (102).
For example, the periodic table of elements, which was initially an incom-
plete series arranging the chemical elements into an ordered and overlapping
series, was both an argument for a natural system of elements and an argu-
ment for the existence of unknown elements (103). The periodic table is a
strong example for calling attention to the force of incremental reasoning
and the power of figures in harnessing the force of reasoning in the construc-
tion of scientific knowledge.
By focusing on how antithesis, antimetabole, and incrementum and gra-
datio work to epitomize lines of reasoning, Fahnestock shows how rhetorical
figures can work to direct inquiry. In some cases, as with the periodic table,
figures lead researchers in productive directions. In other cases, as with gen-
dered antitheses, figures can keep researchers from seeing competing expla-
nations and other relationships.
Much like the classical figures that Fahnestock examines, Johannsens
gene epitomizes an argument or line of reasoning. But, although the name
was established before the thing, and therefore held open a place for the new
knowledge to emerge, the gene was not a placeholder in the same sense as
that of an element missing from the periodic table. In figuring the gene to
function as a yet-to-be-specified material reality that is evident from
Mendelism and that is the fundamental unit of a genotype (A genotype
GENES, FIGURES, THINGS, OBJECTS 67
is the sum total of all the genes in a gamete or in a zygote), Johannsen
introduced a term to work as a condensed rendering of the relationships
among a set of terms, a shorthand for the relationship that could be
expressed at greater length. The gene was introduced as, to use Fahnestocks
language, a verbal summary that epitomizes a line of reasoning.
Fahnestocks insights into the work of rhetorical figures in the develop-
ment of scientific knowledge illuminate the significance of Johannsens figur-
ing of the gene. As an epitome of Johannsens extended argument, the gene
did become a very applicable little word, with all the force of a rhetorical fig-
ure. But the gene is not a rhetorical figure like an antithesis, or a gradation,
is a rhetorical figure. It is not a generic rhetorical device. It does not get cata-
logued in handbooks of rhetoric; it is not something that students learn to use
in a general writing class. Its primary identity is in the life sciences.
Yet, even though the genes authoritative home, or the place where its
literal definitions are managed, is in the life sciences, its rhetorical and cul-
tural work extends far beyond the life sciences. The articles examined in the
previous chapter provide an early example of genes doing rhetorical work in
a nonscientific context. The cultural vitality of the gene prompts me to
extend the significance that Fahnestock identifies for her insights into the
work of figures. To explain what I mean, I turn to Fahnestocks articulation
of the significance of studying the work of rhetorical figures in science. Iron-
ically, she calls upon genes as metaphors to make her case:
The difference between the sciences and other disciplines is a real difference
then, but it does not occur in the basic tactics of argument; these are used
by everyone. What Richard Dawkins has written of selfish genes could be
said as well of these verbal and conceptual devices, that they leap like
immortal chamois from body to body, or from text to text and mind to
mind, down the ages. They are continuous across centuries, texts, and dis-
ciplines in a far richer way than the well-advertised metaphoric nature of
some scientific cases. The extent of continuity demonstrated in the follow-
ing study in the tactics of using opposites, series, reversals, and repetitions is
intended as an illustration of the common stuff of human reasoning. (44)
For Fahnestock, genes are not rhetorical figures; they are biological things
that provide a convenient metaphor for articulating how figures of speech, as
the common stuff of human reasoning, show up in all contexts and continue
to do the work that they have always done. It is a great metaphor. But it also
opens another door, perhaps inadvertently, for considering not just the role of
rhetorical figures in guiding scientific reasoning but also the role of rhetori-
cal figurings in extending the life of scientific objects as they move from text
to text and context to context.
In Johannsens text, we saw that the figuring became part of the gene
construct. As genes move across disciplinary contexts and into public con-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 68
texts, they bring with them at least some of the rhetorical figuring that was
part of their initial design. Thus, it is not only the common stuff of human
reasoning that leaps and jumps from text to text and context to context, but
it is also the specialized stuff of Johannsens reasoning that moves with the
figure of the gene.
GENES AS BOUNDARY OBJ ECTS
To get a sense of the knowledge-making work and rhetorical work of the
gene as it moves from text to text and context to context, I turn here to
consider the gene in the theoretical terms of boundary objects and epistemic
things. In the previous chapter, I mentioned that, in the first half of the cen-
tury, not all researchers working with the gene concept shared a common per-
spective regarding what kind of scientific object the gene was. To some, the
gene was an applicable little word, useful in the study of genetics. To others,
it was an object of researchan unknown that research purposed to bring
into the known. In 1953, with the publication of Watson and Cricks famous
papers on the structure and function of DNA, many questions about the
function of genesespecially how they were duplicated and how they main-
tained stabilitywere settled.
The double-helix model of DNA was able to provide mechanistic expla-
nations for functions ascribed to the concept of the gene. But the identifica-
tion of DNA did not stop the gene from being different things, or having dif-
ferent meanings, in different research contexts. In fact, the model of DNA
did more to open up new research perspectives than it did to create any con-
sensus on how best to view genes and talk about them. Following the identi-
fication of DNA, genes became objects of research in cellular development;
they continued to be objects of research in molecular biology; they became
units of communication and units of information (Kay); and they continued
to function as useful terms (regardless of the specificity they were acquiring
elsewhere) in classical genetics research and population studies. As historian
of science Hans-Jorg Rheinberger puts it in his discussion of the meanings of
genes across the life sciences, if we screen the pertinent literature, there
appears to be no singular, unique, and rigidly determined usage of the term.
What we find is context dependence (223).
To trace the history of genes within and across the disciplines of the life
sciences is to see that genes are exemplary boundary objects. That is, in the
words of Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer, they are both adaptable to
different viewpoints and robust enough to maintain identity across them
(387). Star and Griesemer develop the concept of boundary objects to help
account for how knowledge is made in practice by diverse groups of actors
with diverse viewpoints. Boundary objects are those things (sometimes mate-
rial, sometimes abstract, sometimes both) that allow for cooperation among
GENES, FIGURES, THINGS, OBJECTS 69
diverse groups without necessitating consensus about meanings, viewpoints,
or goals. The notion of boundary objects (along with similar theoretical con-
cepts in social studies of science, such as Haraways material-semiotic objects
[1997], Bruno Latours immutable mobiles [1990], and Rheinbergers epis-
temic things) has become very important and influential in social and cul-
tural studies of science, for it allows for understanding the production of
knowledge without assuming a community of homogeneous interests.
For understanding the rhetorical work of genes, the concept of boundary
objects is helpful because it illuminates the knowledge-making significance of
the gene as a flexibly defined thing. It can prepare us for reading genes (and
other authoritative scientific objects) rhetorically, keeping our attention on
the rhetorical work that they do. Reading with the notion of boundary
objects close to the fore means that we need not defer the ultimate meaning
of genes to an authoritative space that may or may not hold a singular and
precise definition.
Rheinberger examines the gene as a boundary object within molecular
biology. In Gene Concepts: Fragments from the Perspective of Molecular
Biology, he characterizes the historical and disciplinary trajectory of gene
representations as the trajectory of an exemplar of a boundary object. With
this characterization, he argues for recognizing the epistemological signifi-
cance of imprecise concepts. Rheinberger urges historians and science stud-
ies scholars not to see the flexibility and apparent imprecision of the gene
concept as an invitation to find the precision: it is not the task of the epis-
temologist either to criticize or try to specify vague concepts in the hope of
helping scientists clarify their convoluted minds and do better science with
them. Rather, Rheinberger sees the gene as a call for a better understanding
for the importance of understanding how and why fuzzy concepts work in
science. Or, as he continues: Instead of trying to codify precision of mean-
ing we need an epistemology of the vague and the exuberant (222).
Rheinberger emphasizes that the imprecision, or what others have
termed the uncertainty (Hedgecoe), surrounding the concept of the gene is
not anomalous to the production of scientific knowledge but rather epito-
mizes an important component of knowledge making as a process of moving
from what is not known to what is known. In support of his view of knowl-
edge making, Rheinberger has introduced the notion of epistemic things. I
quote at length from his study The History of Epistemic Things for a general
sense of epistemic things:
They are material entities or processesphysical structures, chemical reac-
tions, biological functionsthat constitute the objects of inquiry. As epis-
temic objects, they present themselves in a characteristic, irreducible vague-
ness. This vagueness is inevitable because, paradoxically, epistemic things
embody what one does not yet know. Scientific objects have the precarious
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 70
status of being absent in their experimental presence; they are not simply
hidden things to be brought to light through sophisticated manipulations.
A mixture of hard and soft, like Serress vails, they are object, still, sign,
already; sign, still, object, already. With Bruno Latour, we can claim it to
be characteristic for the sciences in action that the new object, at the time
of its inception, is still undefined. [At] the time of its emergence, you can-
not do better than explain what the new object is by repeating the list of its
constitutive actions. [The] proof is that if you add an item to the list you
redefine the object, that is, you give it a new shape. (History 2829)
I refer interested readers to Rheinbergers essay, and the volume in which it
appears (Beurton, Falk, and Rheinberger), for a thorough analysis of the gene
as an epistemic thing and for details regarding definitions, redefinitions, and
changes in shape of the gene in the history of the life sciences.
Here, it is the perspective of the gene as an epistemic thing, as produc-
tive in the sciences because of its imprecision and lack of specificity, that is
of interest. The perspective of the gene as an epistemic thing enables us
when examining a scientific text or a not-so-scientific textto focus on the
rhetorical work of the gene, without getting caught in the entanglement of
what genes really are outside of the text. Or, not getting caught in thinking
of genes, or any other scientific objects, as hidden things to be brought to
light through sophisticated manipulations or visible only to scientists.
For Rheinberger, epistemic things and boundary objects are over-
lapping terms. Both terms are instructive for getting a grip on how the
geneas a fusion of an argument, a material thing, a useful concept, and
an object of inquirymoves from one disciplinary context to another, from
one context of inquiry to another, and from one rhetorical context to
another. When Rheinberger labels the things that constitute the objects of
inquiry as epistemic things, the label emphasizes his concerns with build-
ing a theory of scientific epistemology. But Id like to return to Star and
Griesemers account of boundary objects to emphasize the social work that
such plastic objects do in maintaining disciplinary, social, and institutional
boundaries.
Star and Griesemer develop the concept of boundary objects as a nec-
essary companion for methods of standardization in their case study of the
formation of a research museum in the early 1900s. Berkeleys Museum of
Vertebrate Zoology, as an instance in which diverse (and sometimes compet-
ing) interests and practices successfully came together to form a scientific
institution, provides a model for what Star and Griesemer call institutional
ecology. The combination of standardized methods (where precision and
consistency reside) and boundary objects (which allow for translation and
multiplicity of meaning) of the research museum offer a model of scientific
knowledge making that accounts for coherency amid an institutional ecology.
GENES, FIGURES, THINGS, OBJECTS 71
In the case of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, the first director,
Joseph Grinnell, expressed the goal of founding the institution as to estab-
lish a center of authority (Star and Griesemer 398). To achieve this goal,
Grinnell set out to standardize the methods of collecting and storing speci-
mens, as well as the methods of collecting and storing information about the
specimens. He devised a detailed cataloguing scheme and mandated consis-
tency and accuracy. In his words, Any facts, specimen, or record left out of
order is lost. It had, perhaps, better not exist, for it is taking space somewhere;
and space is the chief cost initially and currently in any museum.
The precise set of procedures that Grissell and his staff developed for col-
lecting and curating specimens allowed these specimens to be transformed
into a reliable information resource and knowledge-making technology. But
as Star and Griesemer point out, standardizing methods is different from
standardizing theory (407). And we might add: standardizing methods is dif-
ferent from standardizing meaning. The boundary objects are the things that,
in their flexibility and nonstandardized ways, work in conjunction with the
standardized methods. In natural history work, boundary objects are pro-
duced when sponsors, theorists and amateurs collaborate to produce repre-
sentations of nature. Among these objects are specimens, field notes, muse-
ums and maps of particular territories (407).
A natural history specimen goes through multiple translations on its
way to the museum; it gets translated from its place in an ecosystem, to a trap-
pers goal, to a unit of economic exchange between a trapper and a collector,
to a representation of a species, to a resource for data, and so on. It passes
through social worlds, economic systems, and data processing, taking on new
shapes and relationships in each domain. But the meaning of the specimen
never becomes fixed to any one of those worlds. As boundary objects, the
specimens have different meanings in different social worlds but their struc-
ture is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable,
a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is
a key process in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting
social worlds (Star and Griesemer 393). The extent to which the boundary
object can take on and discard different meanings, without demanding a con-
sensus of meaning, is the extent to which the boundaries between worlds can
be maintained.
The boundary work articulated by Star and Griesemer is a social phe-
nomenon. From a perspective of rhetorical criticism, it may appear as a pas-
sive boundary work. If an object is flexible, it does not demand consensus. If
it does not demand consensus, differences can coexist and boundaries can be
maintained. We can see this with the gene; as a boundary object it con-
tributes to the maintenance of disciplinary boundaries. The evolutionary
biologist, the molecular biologist, and the pharmaceutical researcher can
each call upon their own concept of the gene, benefiting from the different
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 72
definitions and uses of genes, without ever having to reconcile those differ-
ences, and thus without ever having to challenge the disciplinary boundaries
that separate their work. This social boundary work is a bit different from the
rhetorical boundary work that Johannsen engages in when he asserts a place
for the gene inside the boundary of the specialized language of science. Or the
rhetorical boundary work of the popular press examples of the previous chap-
ter in which the gene figures in the assertion of boundaries between commu-
nism and Western science. In the section that follows I consider the work of
the gene as both a boundary object and rhetorical figure in a landmark text
in the history of gene studies.
WATSON AND CRI CK, THE GENE, AND DNA
The gene as a boundary object, or as an epistemic thing, has accommodated
a range of articulations and uses across a range of disciplines. I have left aside
the particularities of the different articulations and uses. Here, though, I con-
sider a moment that is widely recognized as a watershed moment in its effects
on the range of epistemic functions of genes. When James Watson and Fran-
cis Crick proposed the double-helix structure as a model of DNA, they pro-
vided a mechanistic explanation for the self-copying capacity of genetic
material. It is this explanation that is often credited with fixing the connec-
tion between genes and DNA. The DNA model provided the gene with the
most material definition it had yet to acquire. The DNA model altered the
genetic landscape for good, but it did not stop the gene from thriving as a
vital epistemic thing. It did not take away the capacity of the gene to be
both flexible and robust.
In James Watsons autobiographical account The Double Helix, the
gene is a driving force; the quest to find the gene provided both the initia-
tive and the momentum for identifying the structure of DNA. The narrative
function of the gene in Watsons account drives a great discovery but has the
effect of downplaying the epistemic changes that were brought about by the
model that he constructed with Francis Crick. Below, I juxtapose the narra-
tive work of the gene in Watsons account with other historical accounts of
the consequences of the DNA model for the study of genes. In the section
that follows, I turn to Watson and Cricks scientific papers to examine how
the gene figures in their arguments.
The story of the race to the double helix, or the drive to identify and
lay claim to the structure of DNA, is one of the most publicized dramas of sci-
entific research of the twentieth century. The storystarring James Watson
and Francis Crick and co-starring Maurice Wilkins, A. R. Stokes, H. R. Wil-
son, Rosalind Franklin, and R. G. Goslingtells of powerful personalities,
gender dynamics, the play between cooperation and competition, the pro-
duction of knowledge at the intersections of specialized disciplines, and
GENES, FIGURES, THINGS, OBJECTS 73
shrewd rhetorical strategizing. It is also a story of a discovery whose impor-
tance and significance preceded it. That importance and significance can
conveniently (though somewhat figuratively) be summarized as the pursuit of
the gene.
Watson, in his scientific memoir, accounts for his own interest in DNA:
Then it was 1951, before I knew of Francis Cricks existence. Already I was
much involved with DNA, since I was in Europe on a postdoctoral fellow-
ship to learn its biochemistry. My interest in DNA had grown out of a desire,
first picked up while a senior in college, to learn what the gene was. (22)
The importance of the gene figures prominently in Watsons tale of how he
got to the Cavendish Lab at Cambridge University, where he worked with
Crick modeling DNA. In graduate school he is driven by the quest for the
gene, but bored by the prospect of studying chemistry (it was my hope that
the gene might be solved without my learning any chemistry). As a post-
doctoral fellow, he first travels to Copenhagen, where he is assigned to work
with the biochemist Herman Kalckar. The work, however, does not interest
him because he could not see how it would lead to anything of immediate
interest to genetics (24). He is happy to leave because it was equally obvi-
ous that I had not done anything which was going to tell us what a gene was
or how it reproduced (25). And on he goes, disappointed by all research that
does not focus on the gene until he gets to the Cavendish Lab, of which he
writes, From my first day in the lab I knew I would not leave Cambridge for
a long time. Departing would be idiocy, for I had immediately discovered the
fun of talking to Francis Crick. . . . Our lunch conversations quickly centered
on how genes were put together (37).
The quest to find out what a gene was or how it reproduced provides
a narrative drive for Watsons story of how he and Crick came to study
DNA. It is especially effective within the rhetorical context of a scientists
memoir written for a general audience. The quest for the gene provides a
compelling and coherent story of how and why Watson and Crick worked so
doggedly to identify the structure of DNA. But Watson does not go into any
details about functional properties of genes nor does he describe his own the-
oretical stance on genes and their biological significance. The most striking
characteristic of genes, or the constraining definition, within Watsons story
is its self-replication, that is, the ability of a gene to be exactly copied when
the chromosome number doubles during cell division (84). More important
though, within the story, the gene functions as if it is a name for a place-
holder, like a place on the periodic table, for a still-unknown element or as
if is one of those hidden things to be brought to light through sophisticated
manipulations (Rheinberger 28). In other words, the genes in the story
are compelling, but they do not necessarily do justice to the life of the gene
as an epistemic thing.
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 74
This is not to say that the link that Watson and Crick established
between genes and DNA is not a compelling moment in the history of genes
and genetics. As Evelyn Fox Keller puts it, Watson and Cricks achievement
stands unrivaled in the annals of twentieth century biology (23). That
achievement is founded on the models ability to account for the self-replica-
tion of genes, thus affixing for good the concept of the gene to the material
of DNA. But it did not settle, once and for all, what a gene really is and how
it really works. The DNA model provided an explanation for how genes
could be exactly copied when the chromosome number doubles during cell
division, but it did not reconcile all the different perspectives on genes or
the different uses of the term.
Far from settling the issue of what a gene is, the research that focused on
DNA made the understandings of genes all the more complex. Keller, in The
Century of the Gene, shows that molecular biology research that followed the
breakthrough of the double helix proceeded to disrupt prior understandings
of the gene, especially prior understandings that held the gene as a discrete,
self-stabilizing, self-replicating, and autonomous biological unit. Keller argues
that the biological work that had come to be associated with the concept of
the gene prior to Watson and Cricks announcement progressively came to be
seen as part of a highly orchestrated dynamic process requiring the partici-
pation of a large number of enzymes organized into complex metabolic net-
works that regulate and ensure both the stability of the DNA molecule and
its fidelity in replication (31). Or, as Robert Haynes put it, The stability of
genes is now seen to be more a matter of biochemical dynamics, than of the
molecular statics of DNA structure. The genetic machinery of the cell pro-
vides the most striking example known of a highly reliable, dynamic system
built from vulnerable and unreliable parts (Keller 31).
Even the essential operation required of genetic material, that of self-
duplication could no longer be attributed wholly to DNA (and, thus, not to
the gene itself):
In fact, left to its own devices, DNA cannot even copy itself: DNA replica-
tion will simply not proceed in the absence of the enzymes required to carry
out the process. Moreover, DNA is not intrinsically stable: its integrity is
maintained by a panoply of proteins involved in forestalling or repairing
copying mistakes, spontaneous breakage, and other kinds of damage
incurred in the process of replication. (Keller 26)
In other words, the unstated premise of Watson and Cricks claim to the sig-
nificance of DNA was, in fact, disrupted and dissolved by the work that fol-
lowed their work.
Raphael Falk uses the term hardening of the gene to refer to the trend
in the 1930s and 1940s of the growing commitment among a growing num-
ber of geneticists to the idea that the gene was indeed a material thing (and
GENES, FIGURES, THINGS, OBJECTS 75
that it mattered that it was a material thing). But Falks analysis also suggests,
along with Kellers, that if the first half of the century of gene studies can be
characterized as the hardening of the gene, then the second half could be
characterized as the dissolution (if not the disillusion) of the gene.
The growing understanding of the complex network of systems that
emerged in the second half of the twentieth century is what leads to the
Alice-in-Wonderland type of explanation of genes with which I opened this
chapter. For a closer look, I repeat it here:
The more molecular biologists learn about genes, the less sure they seem to
become of what a gene really is. Knowledge about the structure and func-
tioning of genes abounds, but also, the gene has become curiously intangi-
ble . . . genes begin to look like hardly definable temporary products of a
cells physiology. Often they have become amorphous entities of unclear
existence ready to vanish into the genomic or developmental background at
any time. (Beurton, Falk, and Rheinberger x)
What this means is not that the gene is some otherworldly entity of sci-
ence fiction but that the actions, attributes, functions, and explanatory power
of genes are not to be found in a single thing or a single process but in a net-
work of processes. What this also means, especially for a rhetorical study of
genes, is that the difference between figurative genes and literal genes (or
between popular gene references and scientific gene references) is not the dif-
ference between imprecise language and precise language. Rather, both sci-
entific arguments and cultural arguments rely on the rhetorical flexibility of
the term.
THE GENE I N THE ARGUMENT FOR DNA
Above, I considered Watsons account of the gene in his memoir. In an
account written to be accessible to a range of readers who do not necessarily
have a background in the specialized terms of genetics research, it makes
sense that the writer would call upon the figurative uses of genes to provide
coherence for a story. But Watson and Cricks use of genes in establishing
the significance of their model within their scientific papers is surprisingly
similar to Watsons use in his memoir. In this section, I consider the rhetori-
cal work of genes in Watson and Cricks papers. The rhetorical work of
genes in these landmark texts suggests that the genes ability to function as a
potent claim to significance is not an antecedent to the materiality of genes,
but rather an integral part of the history of the materiality of genes.
If you read through Watson and Cricks published papers on the double
helix you will get a good sense of the model and how it works. And youll get
a really satisfying explanation of how the base pairs of DNA can be copied.
But you will be left with the question of what a gene actually is. Just as in
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 76
Johannsens 1909 address, the gene in Watson and Cricks papers is unde-
niably real, but its specificity remains undefined, out of reach of the paper.
Watson and Crick published the first report of their modelA Struc-
ture for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acidin the journal Nature. It was a strate-
gic move to place their first announcement in Nature, a journal that pub-
lishes relatively quickly and reaches a broad and general scientific audience
(Halloran 40). The paper was brief, only one page long, presenting the key
features of the model. It was followed, one month later, by their more
detailed report Genetic Implications of the Structure of Deoxyribonucleic
Acid, also published in Nature, and a year later by The Complementary
Structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid, published in the Proceedings of the
Royal Society of London.
In the first paper, Watson and Crick do not use the term gene. There
is, however, one shrewdly placed reference to genetic material. At the very
end of the paper, they coyly suggest the significance of their model, stating,
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated
immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material
(Structure 737). This statement S. Michael Halloran cites as a prime
example of the self-consciously genteel tone contributing to Watson and
Cricks rhetorical effect of communicating a sense of supreme confidence
(Birth 42). Watson, in his memoir, comments on the line: For a while
Francis wanted to expand our note to write at length about the biological
implications. But finally he saw the point to a short remark and constructed
the sentence (139).
The short remark was indeed effective in affixing the notion of genetic
material to the molecule of DNA, for securing notoriety, as well as for ges-
turing toward the papers to follow, in which Watson and Crick detail that
possible copying mechanism. In the second paper, they make the claim
about the significance of DNA for materializing genes more explicit. They
open their paper, Genetic Implications of the Structure of Deoxyribonucleic
Acid, with this paragraph:
The importance of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) within living cells is
undisputed. It is found in all dividing cells, largely if not entirely in the
nucleus, where it is an essential constituent of the chromosomes. Many lines
of evidence indicate that it is the carrier of a part of (if not all) the genetic
specificity of the chromosomes and thus of the gene itself. Until now, how-
ever, no evidence has been presented to show how it might carry out the
essential operation required of a genetic material, that of exact self-duplica-
tion. (964965, emphasis added)
As a paper published in Nature, the text adheres to the guidelines of the genre
of the scientific article. The opening paragraph is where the authors position
the research in a larger scientific context and make a case for the significance
GENES, FIGURES, THINGS, OBJECTS 77
of the work. The reference to the gene is an important component in estab-
lishing the claim for significance.
As the paragraph moves toward the significance of the findings, it moves
from DNA to genetic specificity, to genes, to the essential operation of
genetic material. First, DNA is important because it is located in all living
cells, where it is an essential constituent of the chromosomes. Then, this
importance is extended to the suggestion that DNA is the carrier of the gene
itself. The notion that the gene is there, right there on the DNA, seems to
be supported by lines of evidence. But the evidence is not complete. In the
next sentence we see that Watson and Crick are presenting their explanation
of the DNA model as the necessary evidence, the smoking gun, for proving
that DNA is the carrier of genes. In establishing a claim to significance, Wat-
son and Crick have relied on the claim to significance of the gene itself. At
the same time they have configured the gene, reducing it to an essential oper-
ation of self-duplication.
The term gene is not used again until the last line of the final para-
graph of the articlea position in the genre of the scientific article that
allows for more speculative and less empirically constrained claims. In the
closing section of scientific papers, the authors reinforce claims about the sig-
nificance of their work and gesture toward research that ought to follow. True
to the genre, Watson and Crick adopt a more speculative tone here:
For the moment, the general scheme we have proposed for the reproduction
of deoxyribonucleic acid must be regarded as speculative. . . . Despite these
uncertainties we feel that our proposed structure for deoxyribonucleic acid
may help to solve one of the fundamental biological problemsthe molec-
ular basis of the template needed for genetic replication. The hypothesis we
are suggesting is that the template is the pattern of bases formed by one
chain of the deoxyribonucleic acid and that the gene contains a comple-
mentary pair of such templates. (Implications 171)
Just as the paper began with the gene as a link to the greater significance of
the research, the paper ends with the gene. The gene does not show up
in body of the article. The gene does not figure into the research results. It
does, however, figure in the appeal to a sense of importance for the research.
The paper does not really provide us with a grip on what genes are and
what genes do (except replicate themselves). But it does confirm the way the
gene works as an argument for significance. As in Watsons memoir, the ques-
tions of what a gene is and what it does create a narrative drive for the Nature
article. But the text does not necessarily provide a final answer to these ques-
tions; the text does not remove the gene from the contingencies of lan-
guage, rhetoric, and epistemic perspectives. In a text that had profound
effects on the study of genes, the most palpable sense of genes is that they are
real and very significant.
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 78
Watson and Cricks paper was the scientific paper that is widely cited as
having firmly affixed the concept of genes to the material of DNA. That
newfound materiality permanently and profoundly altered what Raphael Falk
calls the genetic landscape. But it did not reduce the genetic landscape to the
study of DNA. Rather, the material of DNA opened up new possibilities for
studies of genes as components of complex biological processes. The associa-
tion with DNA did not curb the life of the gene as an epistemic thing; it did
not take away the flexibility of the term or of the concept.
At such a key moment in the history of the gene as an epistemic thing,
Watsons and Cricks use of the gene to make a claim for the significance of
their work brings together the epistemic value of the gene as adaptable to
different viewpoints and robust enough to maintain identity across them
and the rhetorical work of the gene figured as an authoritative claim on a
material (though unspecified) reality. Though their findings and their texts
had such a profound effect on scientific understandings of genes, Watson and
Crick do not address the gene as an object of inquiry but rather call upon the
gene as a persuasive rhetorical figure, a figure that epitomizes an argument
about the materiality, reality, and centrality of genes.
GENES, FIGURES, THINGS, OBJECTS 79
IN WOMAN: AN INTIMATE GEOGRAPHY, science writer Natalie Angier ref-
erences the gay gene not as worthy of serious attention, nor even as deserv-
ing critique, but rather as an example of a dubious phrase. It is, to Angier, a
quintessential example of bogus science talk. It is a phrase that, along with
similar constructions like the I.Q. gene, epitomizes the specious fusion of
cultural tensions and biological references.
Angiers intimate geography is an exploration of the semiotic possibil-
ities and explanatory powers of anatomy, physiology, and biological systems
of females and males across species. Her study is designed to work against bio-
logical determinism. Her text counteracts the strong currents in popular sci-
ence writing that use examples of biological research to posit an undeniable
source of meaning and to normalize gender differences, sexuality, and class
differences. Instead, Angier examines a wide range of biology studies, using
them to disrupt stereotypical narratives, to open up new possibilities for the
cultural meanings of biology and the meanings of gender.
Angiers territory includes contemporary research from all areas of the
life sciences, including medical research, primate studies, evolutionary biol-
ogy, animal behavior studies, and molecular biology. But the territory is not
boundless. It has its limits. Angier calls attention to those limits in a discus-
sion of the peptide hormone oxytocin. She does so by relying on the con-
structions of gay genes and intelligence genes as recognizable markers of
the end of the territory of meaningful discussions of biology: Oxytocin has
been called the love hormone. Its a dopy, wishful phrase, so patently reduc-
tionist that, like the terms the gay gene and the intelligence gene, it hardly
deserves being gainsaid. Still, oxytocin may be a player in the sensation of
love (339).
The gay gene is a useful marker for identifying the edge of reasonable and
meaningful discourse. It is precisely because it can mark the edge of the terri-
tory of a book like Angiers, the edge of productive and meaningful discourse
81
6
Figuratively Speaking:
Genes, Sexuality, and the Authority of Science
about biology and genetics, that I find the dopy, patently reductionist gay
gene worthy of attention as a rhetorical object.
In this chapter I examine the figuring of gay genes in the popular press.
I share a sense that these figures mark the edge of reasonable discourse about
biology and sexuality. I have no intention of reviving them or of trying to
move them back into the territory of productive topoi for rethinking cultural
narratives of sexuality or gender. I do, however, see them as doing interesting
work on the borders, not just marking the boundaries between legitimate sci-
ence and the figurative play of popular culture, but actually reinforcing those
boundaries.
Though, in the 1990s, a number of studies at reputable research insti-
tutes were designed to examine the possibilities of biological explanations of
sexuality, the term gay gene was largely a construction of the popular press.
Gay genes are pronounced most forcefully on the covers of popular news-
magazines, somewhat more cautiously within the texts of magazine articles,
and rather elusively within the texts of peer-reviewed science journals. In this
chapter, I examine the rhetorical work of gay genes on the covers and
within the texts of magazine articles. I pay attention to the figuring of the
gene as a material reality. I am less concerned, here, with the possibilities of
the gene as a material reality than I am with the figurative play of the gene
when it is working simultaneously as an overtly figurative gesture and as a ref-
erence to a material reality. I am more concerned with what the figuring does
to confirm boundaries of legitimate and authoritative discourse.
In this chapter, in addition to examining how the gay gene is figured in
the popular press, I also track the gay gene as a boundary object moving across
boundaries within texts and between texts. In chapter five, I considered Star
and Griesemers theory of boundary objects as a means for appreciating the
importance of the flexibility of the meaning of the gene and for theorizing the
gene as a rhetorical object. Recall that boundary objectsboth adaptable to
different viewpoints and robust enough to maintain identity across them
allow for cooperation among social groups or institutions without necessitat-
ing consensus about meaning, viewpoints, or goals (184). When a boundary
object moves from one context to another its meaning is translated; the con-
texts themselves do not have to change or come to a consensus of viewpoints
or goals. In this chapter, I draw on Star and Griesemers theory of boundary
objects as a strategy for reading the rhetorical work of genes within articles in
the popular press. I examine how popular-press reports on genes represent a
translation from one context to another. The representation of translations
of gene from a scientific context to a public context allows for the image of a
boundary to be maintained between scientific contexts and public contexts.
But the boundary between scientific discourse and public discourse is not
only an image of a boundary. The translation is not merely represented within
texts. It is also a process that we can see taking place across texts and across
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 82
genres. In the final section of this chapter I examine the movement, or in
Star and Griesemers terms the translation, of a gene from within a peer-
reviewed scientific text to a popular-press text. In the peer-reviewed scientific
text, the gene is the white gene (w), a familiar object of study in drosophila
research; in the popular press it is the gay gene. Tracking this particular
gene as a boundary object within and across texts allows us to consider the
kinds of boundaries that the genes in general help to maintain.
A PREVI EW
One of the earliest popular press articles to publicize research of homosexu-
ality and genes was an article titled Born or Bred: The Origins of Homo-
sexuality, published as the cover story of Newsweek on February 24, 1992.
Two research projectsone examining the hypothalamus of gay and straight
men, another surveying sexuality among twin brothershad recently been
published in scientific journals. The Born or Bred article is a six-page
review of responses and critiques that followed the two publications. The
promotional material for the articlethat is, the magazine cover and the
preview that appears on the contents page of the magazineoffers a conve-
nient entry point for examining the figuring of the gay gene in the popular
press of the 1990s.
As the cover story, the prime layout space and font size accorded the arti-
cle is significant. It is promoted on the magazine cover with a picture of a
baby and the provocation: Is This Child Gay? Born or Bred: The Origins of
Homosexuality. The contents page figures an answer to the question. The
origin of the answer, if not the origins of homosexuality, is figured as emerg-
ing from somewhere inside the credentialed space of science. Visually com-
manding the contents page is a picture of one of the researchers examining a
model of a DNA molecule (Figure 2). The caption reads: B.U.s Dr. Richard
Pillard suspects that heredity drives sexuality. Thus, before we see the text,
we are faced with the image of a credentialed expert pondering the material
representation of biological heredity. Below this picture is an abstract or pro-
motional representation of the article:
Two new studies seem to find the origins of homosexuality in genetics, not
parenting. But the research has only intensified, not resolved, the age-old
debate. If it turns out that gays are born that way, it could undercut the ani-
mosity they face and win them civil-rights protections as a natural minor-
ity. Yet the prospect of a gay gene raises the specter of eugenics.
The promotional abstract focuses on the possibility of finding origins and links
this possible finding with an age-old debate. The debate is limited to the
reception of an impending reality. Incidentally, the synopsis of a public debate
between those who view genetics as a source for undoing discrimination and
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING 83
those who view genetics as a threat of institutionalizing discrimination is an
effective summary of much of the discussion of gay genes in the popular press.
It shows up, in expanded form, in the articles I examine later in the chapter.
Note the figuring of the gay gene in the abstract. The subject of the
first sentence is two new studies. The action ascribed to these two studies
is the tentative epistemological action of seeming to find. In the second sen-
tence, the two new studies become the research, a more general noun
which, in the grammar of the sentence, is an agent that takes on the action
of intensifying debate (an age-old debate, presumably not a technical
debate within the specialized research domain of genetics). The third sen-
tence identifies the incendiary feature of the research in a clause: if it turns
out that gays are born that wayor, the possible reality that sexuality is
fixed and determined. This possible reality is the it of the paragraph; it is
the it of the research that is intensifying debate; it is the it of the third
sentence that could possibly lead to civil rights protections. In the fourth and
final sentence, it gets renamed: it is the prospect of a gay gene.
The quotation marks accompanying the gay gene suggest it should be read
as a purposeful contrivance, or a figure. Within the short paragraph, the gay
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 84
FIGURE 2
Picture accompanying the preview of Born or Bred
(Newsweek, January 24, 1992; photograph by Richard Howard)
gene is figured to function metonymically, that is, to stabilize the idea of a pos-
sible reality (if it turns out gays are born that way) by talking about it as if it were
a material thing. This figuring, along with the scare-quote gesture, stands as a
preview of the figuring of the gay gene in the popular press of the 1990s.
The gay gene of the preview text is hovering on the boundary of figu-
rative and literal genes. Whether we take it as an intentionally figurative
gene or a tease of a literal gene, we can see that it is calling upon the
metonymic work of the gene to ground the possibilities of a genetic under-
standing as if it were a material thing or an established fact. In other words,
the gene reference here is calling upon the work of the gene to stand in, as
Wilhelm Johannsen put it, as something that covers a reality.
Recall from chapter three that when Johannsen introduced the term
gene in 1909, he offered the term as nothing but a very applicable little
word, easily combined with others. Rather than defining the gene by physi-
cal or functional attributes, he prescribed its figurative worknamely, to
function metonymically both as a convenient name for an evident fact (the
evident fact that, in any case, many characteristics of the organism are spec-
ified in the gametes by means of special conditions, foundations, and disposi-
tions which are present in unique, separate, and thereby independent ways)
and as a notion that covers a reality. Though what Johannsen calls the
notions attached to the current words have changed dramatically since
Johannsens time, the figurative work that he prescribed for the gene can still
help us to recognize the figurative work of genes in contemporary discourse.
It is especially relevant for examining the figurative power of the gay gene.
After providing a brief background of gay gene research, in this chap-
ter I consider more popular-press articles that provide extended examples of
figurative features visible in the preview text: genes as overtly or purposefully
contrived, genes figured as material things, genes figured as emerging from
within the citadel of science, and finally genes poised on the boundaries of
figuration and literalism.
RESEARCH REFERENTS
The two research projects that prompted the Born or Bred article are
Simon LeVays study of the brain structure of gay and straight men and J.
Michael Bailey and Richard Pillards studies of biological twins and adopted
siblings. Not surprisingly, given the cultural tensions and political implica-
tions spinnakering the projects, these studies received (and continue to
receive) a significant amount of press coverage. These two research projects
and two others of the 1990s constitute the bulk of referents of gay gene arti-
cles in the popular press of the 1990s. Thus, before going on to examine other
examples of popular-press accounts, here I briefly introduce the four major
research efforts (see Table 1).
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING 85
Hypothalamus
LeVay, conducting a study at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, exam-
ined hypothalamic structures (a small part of the brain associated with sex
drive in many species) in gay and straight men and reported a correlation
between male homosexuality and the size of four particular nuclei in the
hypothalamus. The anatomical forms of the hypothalamus in the gay men
were more similar to the form usually found in women than to that found in
heterosexual men. LeVays research, first published in Science in August 1991,
addresses neither the inheritance of brain structures nor the causal relationship
between sexuality and brain structure (i.e., whether one causes or contributes
to the causes of the other).
1
In his article, LeVay points out that his research
results do not include any direct evidence that the difference he has observed
actually causes homosexuality.
Twin Studies
Bailey and Pillard, a psychologist from Northwestern University and a psy-
chiatrist from the Boston University School of Medicine, respectively, ana-
lyzed the occurrence of gay identities among sets of identical twins, fraternal
twins, and adoptive brothers. They found that out of a sample of 335 men, 52
percent of the identical twins were both gay, 22 percent of the fraternal twins
were both gay, and 11 percent of adoptive brothers were both gay. From these
findings, Bailey and Pillard estimate that the genetic component of homo-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 86
TABLE 1
Summary of Research Referenced in Gay Gene Articles
Principle Investigator Institutional Affiliation Research Synopsis
Simon LeVay Salk Institute for Examines hypothalamus
Biological Studies structures of gay and straight men
J. Michael Bailey Northwestern Analyze the frequency of gay
University identities among twins
Richard Pillard Boston University
School of Medicine
Dean Hamer National Cancer Pursues a correlation between
Institute, National chromosome regions and
Institutes of Health homosexuality
Shang-Ding Zhang National Institutes Examine courtship patterns in
Ward Odenwald of Health genetically altered fruit flies
sexuality is between 30 percent and 70 percent (Bailey and Pillard). A report
in Science based on an interview with Bailey states that Bailey theorizes that
the genes implicated in homosexuality are probably those involved in prena-
tal brain developmentspecifically in masculinization of the hypothalamus
during sexual differentiation (Holden 33).
Linking Genes
The one research project that attempts to directly link homosexual iden-
tity to a specific locus of genetic material is that of Dean Hamer and a
team of researchers at the National Institutes of Health. In 1993, in the
journal Science, Hamer et al. published the results of a two-part study of
homosexual men and their families that they claimed produced evidence
that one form of male homosexuality is preferentially transmitted through
the maternal side and is genetically linked to chromosomal region Xq28
(325). The first part of the study consisted of analyzing pedigrees (or fam-
ily patterns) of seventy-six self-acknowledged homosexual men. They
found that maternal uncles and sons of maternal aunts of the homosexual
men in their study were more likely than the general population to be
homosexual. They interpreted this finding as suggesting the possibility of
sex-linked transmission in a portion of the population (321). The second
part of the study consisted of DNA linkage analysis of a selected group of
forty families in which there were two gay brothers and no indication of
nonmaternal transmission. The analysis showed that of the forty pairs of
siblings, more pairs (64 percent) shared a portion of the X chromosome
than would be dictated by chance. The area of the X chromosome is large
enough to contain several hundred genes. From this they concluded, it
appears that Xq28 contains a gene that contributes to homosexual orien-
tation in males (325).
Fruit Flies
A study of fruit flies, conducted by Shan-Ding Zhang and Ward F. Odenwald
of the National Institutes of Health in 1995, did not originate as a study of
homosexuality. Rather, the researchers interpreted the behavioral side effects
of a genetic manipulation in fruit flies as suggestive of homosexuality. In an
article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the
United States of America, Zhang and Odenwald detail their study as involving
the manipulation of genetic material and controlling courtship environ-
ments, inducing courtship behavior by raising the temperature for short peri-
ods of time. From their experiment they conclude, in Drosophila [fruit flies],
both genetic and environmental factors play a role in male sexual behavior
(5525). Though they write The mechanism(s) by which [the genetic manip-
ulation] alters the sexual behavior of mature males is currently unknown
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING 87
(5529), Zhang and Odenwald suggest a possible explanation of linking their
observations to observations of male homosexual mounting behavior
among cats, rabbits, and rats with reduced levels of the neurotransmitter sero-
tonin. This possible link leads the authors to conclude, Taken together,
these observations suggest that elements of the basic machinery controlling
male sexual behavior may be highly conserved between taxonomically dis-
tinct organisms. Further genetic dissection of this inducible homosexual
courtship may enhance our knowledge of the underlying mechanisms con-
trolling sexual behavior (5529).
THE SEARCH FOR A GAY GEMMULE
Earlier in the chapter, I noted the use of quotation marks around the gay
gene, suggesting that it be read as openly figurative rather than as a literal
claim. A 1995 Time magazine article provides another example of a figurative
gay gene. In this case, the gay gene appears in the title of the articleand
only in the titledoing the rhetorical work of drawing together several sug-
gestions within the article. I focus on it here to read the figurative work and
to attend to the play between an apparently literal reference to a gene and
the figurative presence of a gay gene.
The article, written by Larry Thompson, is titled The Search for a Gay
Gene. It reports the findings of Zhang and Odenwalds study of genetically
altered fruit flies. The bold title is followed by the headline A DNA trans-
plant made these male fruit flies turn away from females. What does that say
about the origins of homosexuality? Despite the boldness of the title and
the question about homosexuality, the text of the article emphatically avoids
any assertion of a gene that could be taken literally as a causal agent of
homosexuality.
In the first few paragraphs of the article, Thompson explains the flies
courtship behaviorWith a frenzy usually reserved for chasing females, the
males link up end-to-end in big circles or in long, winding rows that look like
winged conga lines . . . the males repeatedly lurch forward and rub genitals
with the next ones in line (60)and explains that the scientists say they
transplanted a single gene into the flies that caused them to display homo-
sexual behavior (60).
Though Thompson takes some liberties in anthropomorphizing (in
flamboyantly gay terms) the fruit flies, he uses caution at the sentence level
when it comes to figuring a relationship between the fruit fly research and
genetics and sexuality. He never uses the term gay gene within the text of
the article. He does, however, assert a reasonable significance of the single
gene (which the scientists say they transplanted) by denying an extreme
claim of causality. Or, more accurately, he has the scientists deny the
extreme causality:
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 88
The two scientists are not foolhardy enough to claim that a single gene can
make a person homosexual. But they think their studies may yield impor-
tant new insights into how genetic makeup, through a complex series of bio-
chemical reactions, influences sexual orientation. (61)
This passage forms the transition within the text from the description of
the components of the study to the overview of political and social impli-
cations of the study. Just as in the preview abstract of the Newsweek article
described earlier, the potential significance of the research is presented in
terms of two opposing positions: that genetic explanations will make peo-
ple more open-minded about equality for gay Americans and that the pur-
suit of genetic explanations continues to treat homosexuality as a defect
that needs to be fixed.
After characterizing potential implications and social meanings of
genetic findings, Thompson returns to figuring a role for genes: No matter
how people feel about the issue, it is increasingly hard to argue that genes play
no role in homosexuality (61). The classical litotes figure of denying an
opposite claim to offer a seemingly understated assertion works here to affirm
a real and active role for genes in determining homosexuality. From here,
Thompson moves on to figure the accumulating evidence that supports an
argument for a role that genes play:
The evidence began to pile up in 1991, when studies showed that identical
twins were more likely to have the same sexual orientation than other pairs
of siblings. That same year, a California scientist reported slight brain dif-
ferences between gay and straight men, although the conclusion is disputed.
And in 1993, an NIH researcher found a stretch of DNA on the X chro-
mosome that seemed to harbor one or more genes affecting sexual orienta-
tion. But no one has proved that a particular gene promotes gayness or has
offered any convincing theory of how genes could influence a persons
choice of sexual partners. (61)
Once again, we see a backing away from a strong claim of a gene as a causal
agent. But the accumulation of evidence is in place, even if this evidence is
a pile up of several different and unrelated kinds of genetic relationships. It
is in relation to this accumulation, with Zhang and Odenwalds adding to
the mounting evidence, that we can see that the figurative work of the gay
gene of the title is not only to conjure a sense of a material reality but also
to assert a conceptual bond among the otherwise disparate evidence that is
piled into the text.
The figurative relationship between the gay gene of the title and the
compilation of studies referenced in the text is not unlike the figurative rela-
tionship that Darwin set up between his purposefully contrived gemmules and
the evidenceregarding various forms of inheritance and the causes and
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING 89
laws of variationthat he had compiled in The Variation of Animals and
Plants Under Domestication. Recall, from chapter three, that Darwin drew
together a range of evidence and observations, describing the accumulation
as facts which every one would desire to see connected by some intelligible
bond (369). That intelligible bond was the figment of the gemmule, a
hypothesis he introduced to stand in until a better one be advanced (350).
Recall also that to evaluate Darwins gemmules for the literal value of what
they did as biological entities is to miss the value of the rhetorical work that
Darwin had figured them to do.
Similarly, to read the gay gene only in relation to literal genes is to miss
its figurative work. And, to see the gay gene (complete with scare quotes)
of the title of the article as merely a rhetorical figure, or simply a catchy and
playful gesture, is to miss the rhetorical and cultural work that the phrase can
do to create a sense of an intelligible bond, even a hypothetical or impend-
ing intelligible bond.
MATERI ALI ZI NG THE GAY GENE
Two articles published in the popular science magazine Discover demonstrate
how genes are figured to lend a strong material presence to a biological expla-
nation of homosexuality. These examples are worth paying attention to not
just because they show how an explanation of homosexuality is figured,
within the popular press, as a discrete material entity. They also show how
popular-press writing can do the work of figuring the materiality of the gay
gene while maintaining a sense of science as a methodologically cautious and
empirically based enterprise.
The first of the two articles, published in January 1993 in Discovers
annual The Year in Science issue, is a page-long report of Bailey and Pil-
lards studies of patterns of homosexuality in families. (Again, the studies
found that the likelihood of a set of twins both being gay was greater if they
were identical twins than if they were fraternal twins.) The title of the review
article is Gay Genes. The lead sentences, retreating from the bold title and
maintaining a sense of uncertainty, read:
Homosexuality may be more than a state of mind. Studies over the past two
years have offered tantalizing clues that the brains of gay men are physically
different from the brains of heterosexual men. The studies are controversial,
but if the differences are real, researchers would love to know when they
came about: during puberty, in the womb, or perhaps even earlier, in the
genes. (Grady 55)
Here, the opening lines (ever so tantalizingly) move homosexuality from
being in the precarious position of a mental state to a potentially stable posi-
tion in the body. With appropriate qualifiersthe studies are controversial,
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 90
but if differences are realwe are moved through a time-space continuum
to the search for physical origins of sexuality. First, we have researchers look-
ing for when the differences come about. The possibility of puberty, a time
period, is followed by the womb, a place representing the beginning of life.
From the womb, the incrementum figure leads us to the pre-life marker:
genes. The movement from puberty (a time period of life) to the womb (a
metonymy representing gestation of life) to genes works its way to suggesting
a material source of life.
With genes positioned as the origin material, the reporting begins by
outlining the outcome of Bailey and Pillards study of gay and straight
adults, which tracked the occurrence of gay identities among identical twins,
fraternal twins, and adopted siblings. (Here, people are either gay or straight;
the description in terms of the odds of the other twin being gay suggests
that the gay/straight binary is unambiguous.) Turning from the statistical evi-
dence provided by Bailey and Pillards study, the author then sharpens the
focus on genetics, solidifying in the discussion the biological conceptualiza-
tion of twins: In both studies [those of males and females], because the per-
centage was so much higher in identical twins than in fraternal ones, its safe
to assume that conditions shared in the womb were not solely responsible for
sexual orientation. Whats left is genetics (55).
The studies themselves were indeed designed to pursue the biological
origins of sexual orientation. But in the Discover article, we can see the
work of genetics figuring the link between the statistical correlation of Bai-
ley and Pillards studies and a biologically determined explanation of sexual-
ity. Having already introduced the study alongside suggestions of genes as
material sources, author Denise Grady is at this point able to use genes in the
next sentence to bridge the two areas: But the researchers find it hard to
explain why there should be genes for homosexuality. Note that the genes
for homosexuality are ushered in within a subjunctive clause; nobody is
asserting that such genes actually exist. Yet the concept of the gay gene has
been represented as an entity that can exist: why there should be genes for
homosexuality. Later in the article, Grady writes, If one accepts the idea
that sexual orientation has a strong genetic componentand some
researchers doubt itthe next logical step is to try to track down the respon-
sible genes.
This is powerful science writing. Without overstating the claims that the
research or the researchers make, Grady is able to figure the material presence
of genes for homosexuality. Reporting on a study of patterns of homosexual-
ity (patterns interpreted as suggesting biological over cultural explanations),
Grady introduces the existence of genes into the discussion. The incrementum
figure (pubertywombgenes), the question of why there should be genes, and
the imagery of tracking down the responsible genes contribute to the material
presence of a biological link. Of course, Grady does not single-handedly figure
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING 91
the materiality of genes; she is drawing on the rhetorical power of the gene fig-
ure to link statistical patterns with a material source of information. Not sur-
prisingly, given its initial design as a specialized term and given the work of the
gene as an epistemic thing, the word gene is particularly susceptible to the kind
of figuring that we see in Gradys article.
A year after the publication of Gradys article, in the next issue of Dis-
covers The Year in Science, another article appears figuring the gay gene
as a discrete material entity. Here the figuring is a bit differentappropriately
so, given the research that is being reported. Rather than figurative moves
contributing to a sense of materiality of genes, we can see the figurative
moves presuming a materiality. The title of the article X Marks the Spot
conjures up an image of some sort of detective mission. As we read the arti-
cle, we realize the title is a cutesy pun on the X chromosome, which Dean
Hamers study linked to cases of male homosexuality. The pun of the title
both adds levity to the discussion and figures the study of homosexuality as a
search for material clues that will explain, once and for all, the complexity of
sexuality.
The detective mission continues as Hamer is described as having
scoured X chromosomes for any regions they had in common. In this case,
in contrast to the Discover article discussed above, the research that is being
described sets us up for the bridge between the study of patterns of homosex-
uality and the materiality of chromosomes. Thus, while Gradys figuring lent
a genetic materiality to a study of familial patterns of sexual behavior, in this
case it is Hamers study that correlates the familial patterns with a genetic
material. The articles author, Rosie Mestel, is cautious about announcing any
definitive results from Hamers study. But at the same time, her description of
Hamers study maintains a strong sense of materiality by figuring an elusive
concept as an elusive thing. Having described Hamers evidence of maternal
uncles and cousins being more likely to be gay than paternal uncles and
cousins, she writes: That suggested a gay gene or genes might be sitting on the
X chromosome, which boys get only from their mothers (71, emphasis
added). Then, after describing Hamers evidence for a region of the X chro-
mosome being shared by two-thirds of the brothers studied, she writes: This
doesnt necessarily mean that a gay gene is hiding there (71).
In Mestels article, we can see the effectiveness of anthropomorphizing
genesthey sit, they hideand the figure of the searchgenes are being
scoured for. These moves are especially effective given the complicated
nature of what it means when one looks for a gene. Yet the pragmatics of
the device for making complex procedures accessible should not dissuade us
from examining the rhetorical and cultural implications of the figuring.
While maintaining an elusiveness for genes, the figures of presence, sitting
and hiding, reinforce a material presence for gay genes, figuring the concept of
a biological link.
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 92
In the Discover articles we can see how the concept of the gay gene can
assume a physical presence, even within the context of a statement that
actively resists the existence of an actual entity that could be called a gay
gene. The statement This doesnt necessarily mean that a gay gene is hiding
there simultaneously denies the material presence of a gay gene and affirms
the rhetorical power of a gay gene. In spite of the unverifiability of the mate-
rial entity, the gay gene is vitalized as a cultural concept. The important thing
is that this vitalizing of the concept is done without ever claiming that some-
thing that has not been proven to exist actually exists.
Attitudes toward science as a careful, cautious, and trustworthy enter-
prise can be maintained. In the Discover articlesas in the Time Search for
a Gay Gene articlethe gay gene takes on a figurative presence. But the
figurative presence is not ascribed to the scientists whose work is being
reported, nor does it challenge the rigor of the scientists methods or the pre-
cision of their language. In the texts of the articles, a distinction is upheld
between what the scientists say about their work and what the science writ-
ers say. It is an important distinction; it allows for the figurative presence of
the gene to borrow from the authority of scientific research without disrupt-
ing the integrity of that authority. In the next section, I take a closer look at
how the figuring of the gene works well with figures that maintain a sense of
science as a separate authoritative space in society. The more we begin to see
that distinctions are upheld between what scientists (and scientific research)
can say and what nonscientists can say, the more readily we can see the
boundary work of gene figures.
GENES EMERGI NG AS BOUNDARY OBJ ECTS
FROM I NSI DE THE CI TADEL OF SCI ENCE
In the Born or Bred preview described earlier in the chapter, we saw a bold
example of the figuring of the possibility of a gay gene. There is another
figure underlying that promotional abstract, a figuration of science that coin-
cides with what Gary Lee Downey and Joseph Dumit have identified and
labeled as a citadel image of science. Recall that the page depicts a
researcher who suspects that heredity drives sexuality as it introduces two
studies that seem to find the origins of homosexuality. With these charac-
terizations of provisional knowledge preceding the articulation of if it turns
out that way, it is as if we are getting a special glimpse into the citadel of sci-
ence, an advanced preview of the authoritative discoveries that might be
coming out of science. The phrase If it turns out that . . . simultaneously
confirms the unsettled status of the results and assures that whatever those
results turn out to be, they will be authoritative.
Downey and Dumit, in the introduction to their 1997 edited volume,
Cyborgs & Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING 93
Technologies, introduce the image of a citadel to identify discourses, practices,
and prevailing modes of popular theorizing about science, technology, and
medicine. As they describe it, the word citadel denotes a small fortified
city or a fortress at the center of a larger city that protects and oversees it
(6). As a model of science and technology in society, the citadel maintains a
separate (and relatively autonomous and sovereign) sphere within which sci-
ence and technology are developed. The model also suggests a unidirectional
flow of knowledge (outward from the citadel) and articulates the commonly
held notion that scientific knowledge precedes its own significance:
This is also known as the diffusion model of knowledge in society . . . in
which knowledge, in the singular, is created by bright, well-trained people
located inside the academy and then diffuses outside into the public arena
through mechanisms of education, popularization, policy, and the impacts
of new technologies. The tests of cultural significance for new knowledge
occur out there in the public arena as it is used, abused, or ignored.
(Downey and Dumit 6)
As the work collected in Downey and Dumits volume attests, the
assumptions about the relations of science, technology, and society that are
captured by the image of the citadel are so widely held and so deeply
ingrained in both popular and specialized discourses that it is difficult to even
recognize them as figured relations, let alone imagine alternatives. In other
words, science as citadel works as an underlying cultural figure, or, in George
Lakoff and Mark Johnsons terms, as a metaphor we live by.
Metaphors we live by are not tropes in the restricted senses of stylistic
devices that operate on the surface of a text or formal devices legible within
an individual text. Rather, as with Lakoff and Johsnons oft-cited example of
argument as war, though it may not be obviously figurative and may not
even be explicitly expressed, a metaphor we live by explains the coherence
among other figurative expressions that are visible on the surfaces of particu-
lar texts and utterances (e.g., metaphor as war becomes apparent in articu-
lations of opponents in arguments, participants going on the offense or call-
ing upon their arsenal). It is not so much a figure of speech as it is a figure of
culture. In classical rhetoric terms, then, metaphors we live by are more like
topoi, or commonplaces that inform speech and argument, than tropes that
are apparent and legible on the surface. Though Downey and Dumit are not
working with the terms of rhetoric or rhetorical criticism, in identifying sci-
ence as citadel as a mode of popular theorizing, their work calls attention to
the citadel as a commonplace, or topos.
We can see the citadel take shape in the figuring of the Born or Bred
abstract. A more elaborate version is developed in a 1995 U.S. News and
World Report article reporting on the cultural debates surrounding gay
genes. In this version, we can see how the citadel figure organizes an article
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 94
for a general audience. The figure, built into the organizational structure of
the article, contributes to a sense of genes emerging from the authoritative
space of science. The figure of the gene also corroborates the citadel config-
uration, confirming a sense of authoritative boundaries. It is the corrobora-
tion that I am especially interested in here.
The article, titled Is There a Gay Gene? Why new findings are causing
a stormespecially among homosexuals, is categorized by the magazine as a
Culture & Ideas article. The accompanying photographsone depicting
antigay protest signs, another depicting a gay wedding in Washington,
D.C.reinforce the Culture & Ideas categorization.
The new findings that are causing a storm in the title refer to a follow-
up study of Dean Hamers research linking male homosexuality to a chromo-
somal region. The article opens with a nature-versus-nurture hook and a brief
announcement of the new findingsIn this months issue of Nature
Genetics, biologists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that
a region on the X chromosome is tied to some cases of male homosexuality.
The article then turns to the storm, which is characterized as two sets of
debates: But that hardly ends the debate in either science or society (Wat-
son et al. 92). As figured in this transition, science and society are two sepa-
rate places; they are places within which debate can take place.
Figuring science and society as two separate places conveniently parti-
tions issues associated with science from issues associated with society. The
next few paragraphs of the article focus on issues associated with the inside of
science. Within these paragraphs the debate in science is characterized by
Hamers 1993 finding that 83 percent of 40 pairs of gay brothers turned out
to have extremely similar regions on their X chromosomes and the critiques
that the research drew from other scientists regarding the methods of col-
lecting data and the repeatability of the results. Michael Bailey (of the Bai-
ley and Pillard study) is quoted as being in favor of Hamers new work, while
some scientists accuse Hamer of choosing his study subjects so selectively
that he found something that isnt really there. Finally, we learn that Hamer
is being investigated by the federal Office of Research Integrity for allegedly
skewing his 1993 data. Before leaving the debate in science, we get word
of LeVays brain structure research, which has not yet been replicated.
Actually, LeVay remains anonymous in the article as his research is described:
in 1991, scientists found that an area of the brain is smaller in gay men than
in heterosexual men. The critiques from other scientists, the official inves-
tigation of Hamers research integrity, and the links to Bailey and LeVay
together represent the debate inside science.
After portraying debates inside science, the focus shifts to the political
and ethical implications of the possible scientific knowledge. The shift in
focus is marked by a boldfaced heading as well as by a reiteration of science
as a separate space:
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING 95
Wider implications. Outside the scientific world, it seems that homosexuals
have much to gain from proof that their sexuality is determined by their
genes. (Watson et al. 93)
Notice that the earlier configuration of science and society as separate spaces
has now been transformed to a configuration more congruent with the image
of a citadel. Science has an inside and an outside. The scientific world is a
world inside a world.
In moving from inside to outside, the article leaves behind the question-
ability of the research and uncertainty of the findings. Inside science, the
debates are focused on the verifiability of the research, the repeatability of
the results, and the relationship between the genetic studies and other bio-
logical research. In short, the technical details of constructing new truths are
taken care of inside the science citadel. With the technical issues taken care
of inside science, the cultural meaning of a genetic explanation of homosex-
uality, however hypothetical it may be, can be discussed outside the scientific
world. Inside, we have the making of a fact; outside, we have a question: what
do we do if we get the fact?
The overview of the issues outside the scientific world follows the same
pattern as the implications discussions in the articles previously described.
That is, the possibility of proof of determinism might undo discrimination or
it could make for more discrimination. On the one hand, the article states,
A born-that-way explanation would disprove those who say homosexuality
is a perversion and encourage gays to seek counseling to change their ways.
On the other hand, genetic determination could offer an easier way to rein-
force discriminating practices through genetic screening of adults and unborn
children.
As in the Discover articles described in the previous section of this chap-
ter, the notion of a gay gene acquires a strong presence as it is figured in the
reporting of this U.S. News and World Report article. Here, it is figured as a
distinct possibility emerging from within science. The citadel imagery in play
in the article should call our attention to the ways in which ideas associated
with science take shape and gain rhetorical force in their representations
outside of science. As in the Discover articles, the figuring of the gay gene
also calls attention to the preservation of science as a careful, cautious, and
trustworthy enterprise. Below, I take a closer look at the grammar in the U.S.
News and World Report article to see how the citadel notion is reinforced at
the sentence level.
Grammar Reinforces the Authority of the Citadel
The overview of debates inside science occupies a distinct space in the U.S.
News and World Report article, separated from the struggle over social mean-
ing by paragraph organization and boldface headings. The grammar of the
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 96
sentences also serves to reinforce the distinction between science and society.
Grammatically, the actions of the debate in science are ascribed to the
researchers, research results, and an office of investigation. For example,
Hamers work drew heavy fire from other scientists who said his study might
be a fluke. So he resumed his studies. The subjects of the sentences (or what
Joseph Williams refers to as the main characters of the story in the sentences)
are Hamers work and Hamer, represented by the pronoun he. In the next
paragraph, scientists and an official institution come into play: Some scien-
tists accuse Hamer. . . . And Hamer is under investigation by the federal
Office of Research Integrity.
The authors themselves are not telling us that the NIH study might be a
fluke, nor are they telling us that research methods used in the study are ques-
tionable. Instead, the authors tell us that otherscredentialed others work-
ing inside scienceare questioning the research methods. The authors are
both respecting and reinforcing the assumption that the construction of sci-
entific knowledgedebates includedtakes place within the boundaries of
science. We as readers, then, are positioned to join the authors in looking in
from the outside to get a glimpse of what the scientists are doing and talking
about inside science.
This grammar of characters and actions is neither unusual nor terribly
interesting as a critical observation. It is a familiar pattern, a strategy of writ-
ing common in news reporting, useful for keeping the reporter in a neutral
writers stance and maintaining the readers attention on the central players
and the important results.
What is worth noting is that as the story crosses the boundary between
inside and outside of science, the grammar shifts, telling a different kind of
story with different rhetorical consequences. Following the heading Wider
Implications, the first sentence is: Outside the scientific world, it seems
that homosexuals have much to gain from proof that their sexuality is deter-
mined by their genes. The sentence has put the attention on homosexuals
and the possibility of genes. The next few sentences each present an action
ascribed to the gene as explanation:
A born-that-way explanation would disprove those who say homosexuality
is a perversion. . . . It would explode the logic of denying gay men positions
as teachers. . . . And it would give parents a guilt-free answer to the Freudi-
ans who claim their sons turned out that way because they played with dolls
or got the wrong love from Mom and Dad. (94)
The it of these sentencesa pronoun that seems to refer back to both
their genes and a born-that-way explanationis taking on a lot of cul-
tural-rhetorical work: disproving, exploding logic, giving guilt-free answers
to Freudians. These are not definitive explanations; they are each presented
in the subjunctive mood. But the grammar of the sentences has relaxed the
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING 97
neutral writers stance. While in the previous section (inside science), the
grammar of the sentences indicates that the debates in science are being
conducted by other scientists and researchers, the wider implications
can be described firsthand without the qualifying actors: A born-that-way
explanation would disprove. We are no longer watching others debate, the
sentences present the issues without actors. Having moved outside the sci-
ence, the credentialed experts are gone, as are all the human speakers; we
get direct statements about what genes would do.
Rhetorical Boundary Work of the Gene
The U.S. News and World Report article shows the flexibility and boundary
work of the gene figure within an individual text. Within the article, the
gene is both a specific location on a chromosome and a potential explana-
tion of sexuality that is presented as having the power to move cultural atti-
tudes. Within the text, the gene functions like Star and Griesemers social
boundary objects, providing a means of translation across contexts of mean-
ing. Like a boundary object, the gene is both adaptable enough and robust
enough to maintain coherence as it travels across the boundaries in the text.
The gene takes on a strong and meaningful presence in the popular domain,
linking to but not demanding consensus of meaning or reconciliation with
genes of the scientific domain.
The clearly marked boundaries of science in this articleor the promi-
nence of a citadel configurationilluminate the flexibility of the gene con-
cept as it translates across the sections of the text that correspond to the
inside and outside of science. The flexibility and robustness of the geneor
the gene as a rhetorical boundary objectin turn, illuminate the rhetorical
work of scientific figures in affirming boundaries of authoritative discourse.
In the next section, I turn to another case of genes and boundary work.
Rather than examining the boundary work of the gene within a text, I exam-
ine the boundary work of the gene as it moves across different kinds of texts
and different realms of discourse. That is, I expand the focus from the popu-
lar press to examine the relationship between a popular-press report on a gene
and the scientific paper that it reports on.
BOUNDARI ES OF FI GURATI VE PLAY
In an earlier section I discussed the Time article Search for a Gay Gene,
paying attention to the pairing of an in-text reference to an apparently literal
single gene and the overtly figurative gay gene. Here, I return to that
same article to examine it in conjunction with its peer-reviewed correlate for
a further look at the boundary work of genes and a boundary of literalism and
figuralism. In the example of the U.S. News and World Report article, I exam-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 98
ined the gene as it translates across sections of the text. Here I turn to see
the gene as it translates from one text to another. In the U.S. News and World
Report example, the different sections of the texts maintain different gram-
matical styles: one more distanced and objective and the other more subjec-
tive. Here, the two texts maintain different rhetorical styles: one more literal
and the other more figurative.
The Search for a Gay Gene, as described earlier, reports on Zhang and
Odenwalds study of courting behaviors of genetically altered fruit flies.
Zhang and Odenwald published their results in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences in an article titled Misexpression of the white (w) gene
triggers malemale courtship in Drosophila (June 1995). In one sense, the
National Academy article precedes the Time article: the publication of the
National Academy article is the event that the Time article is reporting on. In
another sense, though, the two articles work in tandem. They are published
during the same week, clearly an outcome of the science writing embargo
system. According to the embargo system, science reporters receive advance
notice and advance copy of scientific publications provided they agree not to
publish anything before the scientific journal is published. The embargo sys-
tem itself suggests a widespread awareness of the mutually beneficial impor-
tance of collaboration within scientific reporting. Researchers and scientific
journals benefit from the public exposure of the popular press and the popu-
lar press benefits from the advantage of early notification and advance copy.
Odenwald had been studying genetically altered drosophila, or fruit flies,
when he noticed that genetically altered males behaved differently than the
non-altered males (Preiser 82). The observation was apparently the inspira-
tion for the controlled study of sexual behavior. In the study, Zhang and
Odenwald altered the X chromosomes of a population of fruit flies, affecting
the area of the chromosome that is the physical bearing of what is known as
the white (w) gene. They then took the flies and subjected them to heat
shocks and observed the changed behavior; they induced males to interact
sexually and compared the differences between altered and non-altered flies.
They observed that the altered flies behave differently under heated (liter-
ally) conditions. From their observations, Zhang and Odenwald conclude, as
the title indicates, that the misexpression of the white (w) gene triggers
malemale courtship.
In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Zhang and Oden-
wald explain their research while adhering quite strictly to the norms of the
genre of the experimental research report.
2
They describe the research in fairly
controlled terms, detailing and justifying the methodology, and carefully
explaining the correlation between the genetic alteration and the observed
behavior. Consistent with the genre, they introduce their article by describing
prior research, contextualizing their own study in relation to established
knowledge. The established knowledge that they cite consists of background
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING 99
on the white (w) gene, genetic research of drosophila, and behavior of
drosophila. Also consistent with the genre, Zhang and Odenwald conclude
the article by gesturing toward the possibilities of significance of the research
and suggesting possible future directions for related research. In the introduc-
tion, to situate the research in a body of established knowledge, they provide
background on the white (w) gene, drosophila studies, and behavior of
drosophila. In the conclusion, to gesture toward larger significance, they sug-
gest links between their own study and biological studies (not necessarily
genetic) of sexuality in other animals and call for further research on the
underlying mechanisms controlling sexual behavior (5529).
The article adheres to the norms of a scientific genre, using the format
of the introduction and the conclusion to situate the findings in a research
context and to extend the significance of the findings to a broader context.
The situating and the suggestions for significance create a movement from
drosophila studies to a general discussion of sexuality. This is the trajectory
that is extended by the Time article.
The White (w) Gene as a Boundary Object
The introductory description of prior research on the white (w) gene can be
read as the trace of a boundary object across historical and disciplinary con-
texts. In chapter five, I introduced Rheinbergers argument for reading the
history of the gene as a case of the knowledge-making power of a flexibly
defined object, an object that changes meanings across specific contexts.
Here, Zhang and Odenwald particularize that notion by introducing their
study of a specific gene by bringing together several different definitions and
perspectives on the white (w) gene:
First reported in 1910 by Morgan, the white (w) gene has, over the decades,
served as a prototype for numerous studies concerning gene regulation,
insertional mutagenesis, and the behavior analysis of mutants (17).
Located at the distal end of the X chromosome (8), its 2.6kb major tran-
script (911) is predicted to encode a 687amino acid member of the ATP-
binding, transmembrane, transporter superfamily (12, 13), which functions
in the passage of the ommochrome and drosopterin pigment precursors,
tryptophan and guanine (respectively) across membranes (14, 15). w has
been conserved during metazoan evolution as evident from the human and
Drosophila cognate proteins sharing 34% identity and 58% similarity (J.
Croop, personal communication). In Drosophila, w is required for pigment
production in the light-screening cells of the compound eye, oceli pigment
cells, sheath cells of testes, and the larval Malpighian tubules. (5525)
Introduced first as a prototype, the gene in this introductory paragraph is
a knowledge object that has moved and taken shape across disciplinary per-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 100
spectives and historic periods. The brief overview calls upon studies that
treat the gene as a unit of classical genetic analysis, a unit of behavioral
analysis, a chemical unit implicated in organism development, and a loca-
tion on the X chromosome. All these senses of the gene come together in
Zhang and Odenwalds positioning of their own research. Their experiment
focuses on the gene as a location on the X chromosome, but all the other
senses of the gene are necessary for establishing it as an object of research
with biological significance.
In quoting the passage, I have retained the numeral citations to show
how the discussion is tied to a series of references. The citations include pub-
lications from 1910, 1915, the 1980s, and the 1990s. The earliest research is
T. H. Morgans drosophila research. T. H. Morgan is credited with identifying
the white gene. He is also the scientist I quoted in chapter four as saying that,
for the level at which genetic experiments lie, it does not matter if genes are
real or purely fictitious. This is not to say that Morgans research on the
white gene was fictitious, but rather that he was not making any observations
of material genes. In fact, his report that is cited by Zhang and Odenwald was
published in 1910, prior to the publication of Johannsens argument for the
term gene. Morgan uses the term genetic factors to identify the phenotypic
traitswhite eyes in the usually red-eyed drosophila.
It is worth reiterating Rheinbergers sense of an epistemic thing here.
The white gene, like the general gene concept, ought not to be understood
as simply hidden things to be brought to light through sophisticated manip-
ulations (28). Rather, it is a mixture of hard and soft, a mixture of the dif-
ferent conceptualizations and configurations. Pushing too hard to reconcile
the differences of perspectives represented in Zhang and Odenwalds opening
paragraph would render the white gene less effective as an object of inquiry.
Their research is significant in its relationship to the other perspectives and
other definitions of the white (w) gene; their experiments focus exclusively
on altering the gene as part of a chromosome.
Figuring Sexuality
Zhang and Odenwald found that manipulating the chromosomes and sub-
jecting them to heat induced male fruit flies to interact sexually with other
males. The male flies mounted one another, forming chains of flies. In their
article Zhang and Odenwald refer to the fly patterns as malemale
courtship, courtship chains, and courtship circles. The description is
taken up a bit more figuratively in the Time article. The Time author, Larry
Thompson, refers to the male fruit flies as having an orgy, linking up in long
rows that look like winged conga lines. Compared to the genre of the
research report in a peer-reviewed science journal, the pop science genre is a
playground for tropes and figures. Thompson has taken the trope of courtship
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING 101
and stretched it almost to the point of the absurd, describing the subjects of
a controlled research study as if they were characters in a National Lampoon
fraternity party skit:
Put a male fruit fly into a bottle with a female, and he doesnt waste any
time before getting down to business . . . [but] strange things are happening
inside the gallon-size culture jars. In some experiments, the female flies are
cowering in groups at the top and bottom of the jars. The males, meanwhile,
are having a partyno, an orgyamong themselves. (Thompson 60)
Having established the mating scene and the figurative play, Thompson
turns back to the researchers: Whats going on? Without a wink or a chuckle,
Odenwald claims that these male fruit flies are gayand that he made them
that way. The scientists say they transplanted a single gene into the flies that
caused them to display homosexual behavior (60). It is not clear whether
Thompson is referring to the absence of winks and chuckles in a personal
communication with Odenwald or to an absence in the publication that
Odenwald authored with Zhang. Indeed, there are no winks or chuckles on
display in the article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, nor
is there any attention to irony or any other rhetorical device that might sig-
nal an authorial self-consciousness of metaphors at work.
After I had read Thompsons characterization of the researchers as the
caricatured scientists with no sense of irony, I returned to Zhang and Oden-
walds text to see how they figured the sexual activities of the fruit flies.
Under the influence of Thompsons characterization, I could not help seeing
Zhang and Odenwalds descriptions of courting and mating behavior as itself
absurd. The observations that would later in the text be extended to animal
sex and, in the Time article, to human sex, are presented in the most aseptic
of all language: the passive voice with actions (sexual actions) nominalized
and described as traits:
Populations were identified as possessing the malemale courtship trait if
multiple, sustained courtship chains or circles of five or more were observed,
none of which displayed courtship repelling signals (wing flicking, face
kicking, and/or running away). (5526)
Zhang and Odenwald appear to achieve their straight facestheir lack of
winks or chuckles; their appeal to literalismwith the standard devices of
scientific prose. Typically, the passive voice within a results section of a sci-
entific paper keeps the attention away from the author and on the object of
study, maintaining a rhetorical sense of objectivity. Here, the passive voice
and nominalizations also constrain the figurative possibilities of sexuality. I
must confess that I was amused when I encountered face kicking and run-
ning away transformed into observable scientific objects, signals of repelling
courtship. But I was surprised to find myself blushing when I came across an
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 102
errant example of the active voice, with Zhang and Odenwald writing that
suitors licked their genitalia. In the sterile setting of a results section of a
scientific article, the active voice struck me as, well, shockingly sexual.
Really, though, I point to the effects of passive versus active voice and
actions-as-nouns versus actions-as-verbs not to titter at the white-coated
observations of sex but rather to call attention to the typical scientific style
that Zhang and Odenwald maintain in their article. Within this scientific
style, or this adherence to literalism, the gene is a chromosomal alteration
that may be correlated with observed changes in the flies. In the results and
discussion section of the article, the gene stays close to this definition; its
literal sense is not stretched or turned; the gene is not used to make any
explicit claims for significance. As it moves into the popular press, the gene
is translated into the stylistic setting of more open figuration.
As I described earlier, in the Time article, the gene that Odenwald and
Zhang refer to is translated into the openly figurative gay gene that is the
object of a search in the title of the article. The figurative gay gene of the
title is linked to the white (w) gene of Odenwald and Zhangs article. It both
is and is not the same thing. To assess the legitimacy of the gay gene of the
title in terms of the observations of the white gene of Odenwald and Zhangs
text would bring us full circle back to Angiers observation that the gay
gene is a dopy, wishful, and patently reductivist term. But to see it as a trans-
lation of the white (w) gene from a scientific text to the openly figurative
domain of popular-press titles is also to see the work that it does, as a rhetor-
ical boundary object, to preserve a boundary between the everyday playful
language of the popular press and the controlled literalism of scientific texts.
CONCLUSION
The examples of the gay gene in the popular press show the figurative work
that genes can do in popular, or everyday, language. The genes do the figu-
rative work of providing a coherent bond for a set of loosely associated
research studies. The genes also figure a material or metonymic expression for
a relatively abstract explanation of biological determinism of sexual identity.
In the magazine texts, we can see, right before our eyes, how gay genes take
on the function of material realities by way of figurations. It is important to
remember that the figurative moves that lend a stronger material presence to
the reality of genes are not unique to the popular-press texts or to discussions
of gay genes. We saw, in chapter five, the same kind of figuring going on in
Watson and Cricks papers on the structure of DNA.
The gay genes of the popular press can teach us to see how figurative lan-
guage works to lend a material presence to a dopy, wishful phrase. But the
figuring of the gay gene can also call our attention to the preservation of sci-
ence as a careful, cautious, and trustworthy enterprise. In the U.S. News and
FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING 103
World Report article, the rhetorical flexibility of the gene figure corroborates
the image of science as a citadel, an authoritative world within a world, from
which authoritative knowledge emerges. But the notion of science as a spe-
cial citadel of authoritative knowledge production is not simply created or
sustained by figurative representations within individual texts. As the trans-
lation from the white (w) gene of Odewnald and Zhangs text to the Search
for a Gay Gene of Time shows, the work of constructing science as an
authoritative domain from which the otherwise flexible objects of science
emerge as fixed, stable, and authoritative entities is sustained by the rein-
forcing effects of scientific and popular texts working in tandem.
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 104
IN THE SUMMER AND FALL of 2003, the Smithsonian Art and Industry
Museum in Washington, D.C., hosted an exhibit called Genome: The Secret
of How Life Works. The exhibit was sponsored by Pfizer Inc., the global phar-
maceutical company. It was produced by Clear Channel Exhibitions in collab-
oration with the National Human Genome Research Institute, the National
Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the
Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research. The exhibit has been
traveling to exhibition spaces across the country since 2003 and is also avail-
able, in electronic form, on Pfizers website. It is similar in style, attitude, and
genre to other exhibitsincluding Brain: The World Inside Your Head and
Microbes: Invisible Invaders . . . Amazing Alliesthat are also sponsored by
Pfizer and currently on display in American cities and on the Pfizer website.
The exhibit stands as a great example of epideictic rhetoric, an
encomium of scientific and technological progress. The displays present
themselves as educational, making concepts accessible to a broad audience.
But the overwhelming sense is celebratory, an enthusiastic portrayal of the
benefits and progress associated with genetic and genomic research. Aristo-
tles approach of distinguishing epideictic rhetoric from forensic and deliber-
ative rhetoric applies; the main focus is not on proving anything or making
an explicit argument about future research, but rather on instilling the appro-
priate values and on persuading the audience to adopt a sense of the worth of
its subject (1358b1359b). But there is a more specific aspect of epideictic
that I focus on here, that which has been described by James Jasinski as its
role in contructing communal authority. Through epideictic discourse, a
community learns who to listen to, who to respect, who to look up to as role
models, and who to imitate. And community members also learn who they
should not listen to and who they should not emulate (211).
The genome exhibit does indeed offer training in recognizing communal
authority. It draws on the authoritative ethos of the institutions that are listed
105
7
Genome: The Secret of How
Tropes Work in the Life Sciences
as co-producers and the historic and contemporary scientists whose voices are
incorporated in the exhibit. But there is another kind of authority, besides
that of institutions and individuals, that is at stake. It is an authority of sci-
entific rhetoric. Tropes and figures take on a prominent role in the presenta-
tion of the authoritative knowledge of genetics. What is of most interest to
me here, in this closing chapter of a book that has addressed the rhetorical
boundary work of genes (especially the boundary work of upholding a sense
of separate spheres of scientific literalism and scientific figuration), is the
kind of public training that the exhibit offers for recognizing the authority of
science amid the play of rhetorical figures. What follows, then, is a tour of the
exhibit, a tour that pays attention to how the exhibit engages in the work of
epideictic rhetoric by guiding its audience to an appreciation of a communal
authority of science and of rhetoric.
TOURI NG THE GENOME
As I entered the exhibit The Genome: The Secret of How Life Works in
the Smithsonian Art and Industry Museum in Washington, D.C., I was
reminded of the allure I used to feel as a kid looking at the back of a cereal
box. Not health-food cereal but the sugary kind, like Capn Crunch

and
Fruit Loops

. The kind that came with little plastic prizes and had stories and
puzzles and mazes printed on the boxes in bright colors, with cute cartoon-
like characters expressing surprise at the story or asking me to help them find
their way through the maze. With a similar cereal-box aesthetic, the brightly
colored and playful looking displays of the genome exhibit declare fun and
puzzle-solving stimulation. This is not a museum exhibit that keeps the
viewer at a distance squinting into Plexiglas boxes and looking at arcane arti-
facts. This is a put-on-your-sleuth-hat and pick-up-that-oversized-magnify-
ing-glass kind of adventure. Colorful signs with oversized letters invite
museum visitors to pull levers, press buttons, open doors, and play along the
surfaces of the artifacts on display.
The artifacts that visitors are being encouraged to interact with are large
physical embodiments of tropes and figures. There is an enormous book of life,
a hereditary slot machine, a giant puzzle shaped as a zipper to show how DNA
zips and unzips, and a demonstration of protein manufacturing as a cookie fac-
tory. Its not that the display stations call upon tropes and figures to help vis-
itors understand the object on display; the tropes and figures are the objects
on display.
The exhibition is divided into two main exhibit rooms. The first is
devoted to basic lessons in biology and genetics, and the second, accessed
through a passageway labeled On the Genetic Frontier, is devoted to cele-
brating recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering and applications of med-
ical genomics. It is in the second half of the exhibit space, along the frontier,
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 106
that the corporate sponsorship of the exhibition is most apparent. The sta-
tionsexplaining genetic screening, research into specific diseases, and eth-
ical concerns related to genomics and medicineeach feel as if they need a
reminder at the foot of the display that this is indeed a paid advertisement.
The aesthetics and style of the two exhibit rooms are decidedly different
from one another. The first is more playful; the colorful toy-like interactive sta-
tions have a learning is fun kind of appeal. Children tend to be running
around excitedly in this room. The second has a more grown-up feel; adults
tend to linger around the individual stations, each of which requires more read-
ing and sustained attention than those in the first room. Its in the first that the
tropes and figures are inviting visitors to play. The second does not call atten-
tion to figurations; it has the flavor of literalism. Thus, below, I attend to the
displays in the first room, with their implicit lessons about figurations. I then
turn to the boundary of figuration that is represented as the frontier to con-
sider the consequences of boundaries of rhetoric in public displays of science.
SPI RALI NG FI GURES
We can start with the entryway for a sense of the intense figuration on dis-
play and for a sense of how you are incorporated in the exhibit. The walls at
the entrance guide visitors through a spiraled corridor past three round
objects lined up in a series. The first round object is a magnified picture of a
human egg with the proclamation This was you. The second round object
is a mirror (about the same size as the human egg), with the message This is
you. The third is a large red circle with a message inside: This is the secret
of you. Spiraling away from this circle is a long line of lettersAs, Ts, Gs,
and Cspresented as the secret-holding code:
This code holds the secret of your genesand your genes hold the secret to
where you came from, who you are, and who you might become. Interact-
ing with your surroundings and influenced by chance, your genes contain
the secret of how life works.
1
The message is constructed with its own gently spiraling figure, setting
up a sense of easy movement among layers of nested secrets: inside the code
is the secret of genes; inside the genes is the secret of you; inside you and your
genes is the secret of life. The architectural, visual, and rhetorical figures
reinforce one another in content and style. The curved entryway spirals vis-
itors into a place that then spirals out to a series of exhibition stations. The
visual trimorphism of what you were, what you are, and the secret of you spi-
rals visitors in through biological time and spirals us out from the simple egg
to the complex individual and to all of life. The messages of secrets spiral us
in to the special knowledge while spiraling out to the expanded significance
of genetic information.
GENOME 107
We may notice that we are being ushered in here to a new, more flexible
and more fashionable, sense of determinism. Though you are reduced to a sin-
gular secret, that singular secret is not quite the old familiar metonymizing
move of explaining you as an element of biological material. You are not your
genes here. You are what appeared in the mirror just a moment ago. Still, the
biological material contains your source code and makes you able to interact
with the environment and become something all your own. Your individual-
ity, the mystery of your individuality, and the mystery of life for that matter,
are contained in the code.
But, more to the point of this chapter, the spiraling figures of the entry-
way usher us into the style of the exhibition. The layered and overt figuration
helps to calibrate us for the playfully serious rhetoric to come. This is playful
figuration with important lessons: basic lessons about biology and genetics
and suggestive lessons about the importance of tropes and figures in the life
sciences.
ERI C LANDER AND THE
AUTHORI TATI VE SECRET- SHARI NG ETHOS
A primary theme that dominates the exhibit is that of secrets being revealed.
The sharing of secrets helps promote the sense that what is on display is priv-
ileged knowledge, and thus all the more real, authoritative, and important.
At the entrancebefore the spiralscrawled in handwriting on a chalk-
board (well, really, its a pretend chalkboard), is an announcement of what is
presumably the primary lesson of the day: the secret of how life works. Indi-
vidual learning stations follow suit, telling of secret codes, the key to the
mystery of life, and amazing secrets in the book of Lifes Recipes. After
being herded in through the spiral entryway, visitors are confronted with the
largest of the displays: an enormous model of a DNA double helix, roped off
in a style evocative of the huge dinosaur displays at natural history museums.
Perched atop this huge model of the DNA double helix is a continuous
loop video. The video features Eric Lander, who explains that the DNA
model is the secret of you, the secret of me, and actually, the secret of all life
on this planet. Lander is the director of the Whitehead Institutes Center for
Genome Research, the founding director of the Broad Institute (established
in 2003 for pursuing the study of human genomics for medical and pharma-
ceutical purposes), and a professor of biology at MIT. When the International
Human Genome Sequencing Consortium published the Initial Sequencing
Analysis of the Human Genome in Nature in February 2001an article that
begins, by the way, with its own allusions to valuable secrets made available
to the public, referring to the genome as holding an extraordinary trove of
information now being made freely availableLander, by virtue of being
the director of the sequencing center that contributed the most genomic
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 108
sequence, was the first author listed. He is one of contemporary life sciences
most charismatic promoters, often playing a leading role in educating the
public about genetics and genomics. He has a special knackor a character-
istic ethosfor being the enthusiastic teacher and captivating his audience
with the pleasures of learning. With a spirited and hospitable speaking style,
he lets us in on the key to the mystery of life:
Hello! My name is Eric Lander.
What you see before you is the DNA double helix. Its the secret of you, the
secret of me, and, actually, the secret of all life on this planet. The DNA
double helix is made up of genes, which are sort of a recipe for who you are.
The only problem is that recipe is written in a secret code. It took a very long
time to figure out how to read that code. But now we have it.
To read the code, you have to learn a new alphabet. Instead of your ABCs
you have to learn your As, Ts, Cs and Gs [the corresponding letters on the
model light up in synch]. The letters stand for chemicals called bases. A
stands for adenine, T for thymine, C for cytosine, and G for guanine.
The secret is that As always pair up with Ts and Cs always pair up with Gs
on the two sides of the double helix.
The neat thing about the DNA double helix is that it can make a copy of
itself. Thats how genes can be passed on from parents to their children.
To make a copy of itself, the DNA unwinds and splits down the middle. Each
strand of the double helix becomes a template for a new partner strand.
With the help of special proteins called enzymes, each half rebuilds and
restores the missing half.
Remember As always pair with Ts and Cs always pair up with Gs.
Now, where we had just one double helix, weve got two identical copies of
the double helix. Thats how the code of life replicates itself.
The DNA double helix is the key to the mystery of life. It holds the instruc-
tions for how we live and breathe, all written out in a four-letter code.
Its really pretty simple when you think about it. But it is the secret of life.
In the secret-revealing video, Lander connects the theme of secrets and
the metaphor of codes with the material form of DNA. He also invokes sev-
eral popular tropes: genes as recipes, chemical bases as letters of an alphabet,
DNA as holding instructions, and DNA as a zipper. He tells the people stand-
ing in front of the gigantic three-dimensional model of DNA that they are
looking at the secret of themselves and the secret of all life. The secret, Lan-
der explains, is both the form itself and the way that the components of DNA
interact with one another. That is, the secret is both the way that the form
embodies a code and the way that it reproduces that code. Landers tone
GENOME 109
his enthusiasm for the component tropes and his slightly hushed and slowed
pace at the endsuggests that the secret is also the way the various tropes
come together.
Landers captivating tone shifts from dramatizing the specialness of the
secrets, to emphasizing the magnitude of their significance, and then to suggest-
ing the accessibility of those secrets. When he explains that the secret is that
As always pair up with Ts and Cs always pair up with Gs, he adopts the posture
and tone of a favorite uncle showing us whats inside the magic box. The drama
of the secrets works to keep our attention focused on the DNA model and on
the elegance of the model, the satisfyingly simple relationships between As and
Ts, Cs and Gs. Landers explanation does not explicate any broader significance
for this special code (other than linking the code with the concept of genes),
nor does it account for how this model connects to anything outside of itself. It
is as if we are all together inside the bubble of a special secret knowledge, not
worrying about how it connects to anything outside the bubble.
As I stood with my fellow museum visitors in front of a roped-off model
of DNA listening to a recorded explanation of the mechanisms of the model
from one of the more authoritative public voices in genomics research, I felt
as though I were participating in a simulation of public science. Like the
nineteenth-century museum exhibits of natural history, the DNA model
stood before us as a spectacle of science. But here, rather than focusing our
attention on a natural specimen of racial or evolutionary history, the spec-
tacle focuses our attention on the primacy of codes. The elegant confluence
of tropes and secrets encourages a sense of awe and wonder in the face of priv-
ileged scientific knowledge.
TROPES ON DI SPLAY
The Lander video relies on the theme of the secret to provide a sense of
coherence among a series of tropes that are on display at the exhibit.
2
In the
stations surrounding the gigantic model of the DNA helix, within earshot of
Landers continuous loop recording, the individual tropes are materialized in
their own three-dimensional form or video display. At each station, visitors
can learn a basic biological or genetic concept by learning a trope. The tropes
are the vehicle for understanding the concepts. In a sense, then, the museum
offers training in using tropes as vehicles for understanding concepts in the
life sciences. Below, I describe a few stations in terms of the kind of tropo-
logical training that they offer.
A Simple Reductive Figure
One of the stations, labeled Atoms to You and claiming Parts Make the
Whole, demonstrates a trope of biological reduction with a set of nested
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 110
dolls. The outer doll is labeled body. Nested inside the body is a doll
labeled organs. Nested inside that, one labeled cells. Then organelles,
then molecule. Finally, the innermost doll is labeled atom.
I especially like this figurative display because of the recurring pattern of use
I noticed while lingering nearby. The nested dolls are located about two feet
above the ground, apparently intended for the smaller children touring the
exhibition. Typically, a small child would approach the dolls and start lifting the
top one off and exploring the magic of finding another one underneath, at times
with volatile enthusiasm. The accompanying adult would then crouch down to
explain the lesson of the dollssee, inside your body, you have organs . . .
The kind of playful interaction, the adult explanation, and the open,
blank looks on the childrens faces remind me that the use of tropes and fig-
ures to access biological concepts does not necessarily come naturally. In
other words, the adults and children interacting with the Atoms to You dis-
play provide a glimpse into some early training in figurative thinking.
The scenes at the museum are similar to those described by Ronald
Amerine and Jack Bilmes in their study of third graders who conduct exper-
iments by following instructions published as part of a commercial science
education kit. The children in Amerine and Bilmess study use the instruc-
tions for learning about water pressure, but they dont do a very good job of
staying focused on the lesson. For them, the ability to achieve the desired
outcome of the experiment becomes more of a competitive game than a les-
son in observing natural phenomenon. As Amerine and Bilmes show, if you
examine the scene in terms of the intended lesson, there is something absurd
about the instructions for the experiment: the way they are written presumes
that the users/readers already understand the principle that is under instruc-
tion, yet the users/readers are supposed to be learning the principle through
these very instructions. The children who Amerine and Bilmes observe are
not interacting with the intended lesson. But they are learning. They are
learning about the problem of constructing a coherent, successful course of
action from a set of experiment instructions. Amerine and Bilmes conclude
that the children, while apparently missing the point of the lesson, learn
about the relationship between texts and predictable outcomes.
Similarly, there is something absurd about a lesson, aimed at children,
that requires both a rather sophisticated understanding of the concept of
nesting systems and an ability to use abstract tropes to organize our under-
standings of material bodies. The children may not be absorbing the message
about our bodies as nested systems. But they are interacting with a toy that
has some figurative relationship with the life sciences. Just as the children
who Amerine and Bilmes observe are learning the relationship between texts
and predictable outcomes, the children at the museum are being ushered into
a form of play that contains lessons about the relationship between toys, fig-
ures, and the life sciences.
GENOME 111
Cell Surveillance Technology
In the Cell Explorer station, visitors can learn about the different compo-
nents of cells while also getting a lesson in what Lakoff and Johnson call the
coherence of a system of metaphors. The display is a large two-dimensional
map of a cell, with components marked as targets. Visitors are invited to
slide the crosshairs of the monitor over the part of the cell you would like to
explore. The monitor is a small video monitor affixed to a transparent plate
marked with crosshairs. When the crosshairs are lined up with the target on
the map, a short video is triggered explaining what the cell component is and
how it works. Each component is described in terms of a metaphor; together
they form a system of metaphors that cohere around the image of an indus-
trial center. The cell membrane is the cells border and security guard. The
nucleus is the cells office or control center. A lysosome is a trash can. The
mitochondrion is the power plant. The ribosomes are protein factories. The
endoplasmic reticulum is a conveyor belt. The golgi complex is the loading
dock for material that is leaving the cell. And a vesicle is a cells delivery
truck, carrying materials out of the cell.
Just as in many of the other displays in the exhibition, visitors can access
a biological concept by learning a metaphor. But this display is also a system
of metaphors. As the metaphors come together, so do the mechanisms of the
cell. Embedded in the display is a lesson about using systems of metaphors to
understand biological systems. Get the system of metaphors and you get a
perspective for understanding the relationships among the component parts
of the cell. Get that and youve got a strategy for thinking in the life sciences.
A Cookie Factory
The system of industrial production metaphors is sustained in the adjacent
station, but this time without the loose military-surveillance associations of
locating the place on the map through the crosshairs of a movable visual dis-
play. Instead, this station is a bright and cheery display of a cookie factory.
An elaborate diorama-like display has moving parts that bring together the
system of manufacturing metaphors and the genes-as-recipes metaphor to
depict the cell at work, following a coded recipe, to produce cookies/proteins.
The cartoonish figures in the display move in a coordinated process that is
narrated, on a continuous audio loop, by Eric Lander. As the parts and
metaphors come together in an elaborate depiction of protein-making
process, more training in metaphorical coherence and metaphorical interac-
tion is visible.
A cartoon-figure man, working inside the home office (or nucleus) can
be seen copying a special recipe. The copy of the recipe is then sent off via
the mRNA (messenger RNA), depicted as a woman on a motorbike scooting
over to the factory (or ribosome). A figure inside the factory is apparently
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 112
coordinating the process of cookie making; the process is represented by a
series of wheels and gears whirring around. In the front of the display is a
museum board, functioning like a caption to the display, outlining the
metaphors at work in the process and showing how the process corresponds
to the actual process of the cell.
Though I certainly did not conduct any type of ethnographic or usabil-
ity study, I did happen to notice while loitering near the exhibit area that this
station appeared to receive the most attention from visitors in the nine-to-
twelve age bracket. While I was mesmerized by the depiction of the process,
the sustained metaphorical coherence, and the complex mechanisms of
affirming a predictable and foundational reality, a few momentarily unsuper-
vised kids were drawn to the sides of the exhibit, where they could glimpse
the mechanisms of the gears and the wheels inside the factory. They seemed
to be trying to go outside the bounds of legitimate exhibit viewing by try-
ing to figure out how the parts were moving along in a standardized and pre-
dictable fashion. Meanwhile, I was going outside the bounds of legitimate
research practices by eavesdropping on their conversations, listening to one
kid explain to another that the mechanism that allowed the motorbike to
move across the display was hidden behind the little hut. Within the kids
conversation about the gears, the legitimate meaning of the hut was the
object that was masking the mechanisms of the display; it was neither the
metaphorical home office nor the cells nucleus. The kids were clearly
interacting with the figurative interfaces, but not in the sense that was
intended by the designers.
In his theory of metaphorical interaction, Max Black explains that the
success of any metaphor depends on the active cooperation of the audience.
When a metaphor is applied to a concept or an object, it is up to the listener
to select which features of the metaphor, which entailments, to apply to the
object. When kids run around to get a glimpse of the gears that are operating
behind a system of metaphors, they do not appear to be selecting the
intended entailments of the system of metaphors. They are not using the
metaphorical display in the intended or legitimate way. Again, like the
children in Amerine and Bilmes study who call attention to the culturally
learned relationships between texts and predictable outcomes, these kids
catching sidelong views of the cookie factory metaphor call attention to com-
plex relationships among metaphors and biological systems.
Metaphors, and stylistic devices in general, do not by themselves fix
meaning. They are always in touch with the contingency of meaning and the
contingency of discourse. The audience can always wander off and imagine
the wrong things. This contingency becomes apparent when we see little kids
interact with the nested dolls. Who knows what theyre thinking. But we can
see theyre not really getting the intended message. And the older kids play-
ing around behind the cookie factorytrying to figure out how the gears work
GENOME 113
and what makes the thing go roundare apparently not trying to grasp how
the messenger on the motorbike is supposed to be representing a rhizome.
The display stations in the museum exhibit train visitors to use the
metaphors in the intended or legitimate ways to get to the knowledge of biol-
ogy. But, collectively, the displays also offer a more general training in using
tropes. Even if visitors do not study the explanation of the cookie factory, and
dont absorb that the cookies being manufactured are analogous to proteins,
and dont retain the components or the sequence of the process, there are still
important general lessons on display. Biological processes can be modeled and
accessed with familiar and accessible metaphors. The knowledge of the
genome is not arcane and occult knowledge; it may be complex, but it is
accessible and it is presentable in a public space. Besides the lessons con-
tained in the particular system of metaphorsmetaphors that transfer con-
cepts of a predictable, reliable, and knowable process to biological processes
of a cellthe cookie factory and the surrounding stations perform the impor-
tance of tropes and figures in relation to the life sciences. If we step back and
scan the exhibit space, we see each station embodying a different metaphor.
We can mix these metaphors to piece together a fuller understanding of
genetics. The museum space appears to be as much about training visitors in
the role of metaphors and modeling in the life sciences as it is about getting
the content across.
LAYERED METAPHORS
In the previous section I considered how the exhibit provides training for
using metaphors and models to access knowledge of the life sciences. But
there is more rhetorical training embedded in the exhibit than a demonstra-
tion of how to use tropes to access knowledge. The tropes presented are not
merely a matter of making concepts accessible to a lay audience. Some of the
tropes and figuressuch as the spiraling entranceway and the origami dis-
playare whimsical and explicitly figurative; they are so overtly stylized that
they would not be mistaken for the content of the lesson. But otherssuch
as the mitochondrion as the cells power plant or the genome as coded
informationblur, to varying degrees, the distinction between the stylistic
device and the content of the lesson, or between the trope and the knowl-
edge. Thus, in addition to demonstrating how to use metaphors to access
knowledge, the exhibit offers an extended lesson regarding levels of
metaphors or degrees of figurability. Or, in other words, the exhibit guides its
visitors in recognizing which figures are closer to the literal content of the
display, which figures have more authority.
The layers of metaphor are physically displayed at the giant book display.
To prepare to see the display as a form of epideictic guidance for scientific and
rhetorical authority, we can borrow from a discussion of levels of metaphors
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 114
provided by S. Michael Halloran and Annette Norris Bradford. In their arti-
cle Figures of Speech in the Rhetoric of Science and Technology, Halloran
and Bradford identify as a principle of scientific popularization the impor-
tance of revealing to an audience the central tropes of a scientific field. Hal-
loran and Bradfords purpose is to advocate the judicious use of metaphor in
the teaching of scientific and technical writing. In so doing, they call atten-
tion to different levels of metaphor by contrasting the rhetorical functions of
mere metaphor and metaphor as a central heuristic.
Halloran and Bradford examine metaphors in genetic discourse, paying
special attention to James Watson and Francis Cricks papers A Structure for
Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid and Genetic Implications of the Structure of
Deoxyribonucleic Acid. Watson and Cricks use of the image of a zippera
metaphor also on display at Pfizers genome exhibitprovides the primary
example for Halloran and Bradfords discussion of metaphors that are so obvi-
ously metaphors that they are unlikely to be taken literally. The zipper
metaphor provides an accessible image of how the two strands of the mole-
cule might come apart during cell division. The metaphor transfers the
familiar function of a zipper to the overall description of DNA. We are not
likely to think of the DNA molecule as a real zipper; it is only zipper-like in
one specific aspect. In Halloran and Bradfords terms, the zipper metaphor has
local and limited application. . . . When used to explain how the strands of
the DNA molecule fit together and come apart, the image of a zipper is a mere
metaphor (which is not to say that it is rhetorically useless) (Halloran and
Bradford 188).
The more mere a metaphor, the more obvious it is as a metaphor. The
more obvious, the more limited is its applicability. It is only being used to
transfer one aspect of its meaning. We are not likely to see the nested dolls
and think that our bodies are composed of distinct physical shells resting
inside one another; the trope transfers (or attempts to transfer) the concept
of nesting to the arrangement of biological systems. In the case of protein
folding likened to origami paper, the analogy is so limited and local that it is
made explicit in a simile: A protein is like a piece of origami paper. Simi-
larly, the system of tropes comprising the cookie factory is made explicit in
part by the visual display, in part by the identification of some of its compo-
nent similes, and in part by Landers narration, with its audible wink letting
us in on the metaphor of the cookie as protein. The playful and explicit
tropes throughout the exhibit help to emphasize particular aspects of biology
and genetics and call attention to particular metaphoric relationships.
In contrast to mere metaphors (metaphors that are overtly figurative and
limited and local in application), metaphors that are central (or fundamen-
tal) to a scientific discipline are less obviously figurative and more likely to
be taken literally. To explore the function of scientific metaphors that are not
quite as limited or local in application as the zipper metaphor, Halloran and
GENOME 115
Bradford examine the metaphor of communication in genetics, a metaphor
also invoked by Watson and Crick. Unlike the limits of the zipper metaphor,
the limits of the communication metaphor are not obvious. It is what Hallo-
ran and Bradford refer to as a central heuristic in the field of genetics. It is
so close to the foundational understanding that it is not likely to be recog-
nized or experienced as a metaphor: It might be argued that to the biologist
the idea of genetic communication is not a metaphor but a literal theory, that
the genetic process is not like communication, it is communication (Hallo-
ran and Bradford 186).
The emergence of communication as a central metaphor in genetics, as
a metaphor that doesnt seem to be at all metaphorical, is a historically spe-
cific instance of Friedrich Nietzsches claims about knowledge making as a
metaphorical enterprise and the production of truth as a process of forgetting
about the metaphors.(1174) Several historical and cultural studies of genet-
ics, most notably Lily Kays Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the
Genetic Code, aim at remembering the production of the metaphors of com-
munication that gave rise to contemporary genome studies. As Kay shows,
metaphors of communication, information, and code were integral to the
production of the Nuclear Age and the cold war; their explanatory power in
genetics should not be recognized as emanating from genetic material itself
but rather as resulting from the expansion of information sciences in the mid-
dle of the twentieth century and the alliances that formed between informa-
tion scientists and life scientists.
Metaphors of communication, information, and code are all part of the
museum exhibit. But unlike in Kays analysis, these metaphors are not his-
torically situated. And unlike the cell at work as a cookie factory and the
lysosome as a trash can, the communication metaphors are not obviously
metaphors. The communication metaphors, and the guidance of how to
understand these metaphors in relation to the reality of the genome, all come
together in the presentation of the genome as a book. In Halloran and Brad-
fords terms, the book exhibit guides its visitors in recognizing a range of
metaphors, from mere metaphors to fundamental or central metaphors. In
Nietzsches terms, the exhibit guides its visitors in remembering some
metaphors and forgetting others.
The genome-as-book metaphor is foregrounded in the exhibit, in both
the physical displays and the accompanying texts. At the entrance is a card-
board cutout of a little girl in a dress, standing on a stack of books, her face
hidden behind a big red book that she holds open in front of her. The title of
the book is the same as that of the exhibit, with the same lettering and dou-
ble-helix logo: Genome: The Secret of How Life Works. Inside the exhibit
spacejust past the spiraled entrance and within earshot of the Lander
videoone of the first display stations we encounter is an enormous book, at
least nine feet tall, propped open so that we can see the front and back cov-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 116
ers and will have to walk around to see whether this is really a book or if its
just a clever way to create space disguising an exhibit wall as a metaphor. On
the spine we see the title: Recipes for Life. The front cover shows the title
along with promotional claims: All 23 Chapters and Filled with Amazing
Secrets and:
Inside this giant books 23 chapters, youll find all the recipesyour genes
for cooking up tens of thousands of proteins. Why proteins? They make and
maintain your body. This recipe book holds all the basic instructions for a
humanthe entire human genome.
The book metaphor is productive for lending the genome the authority of
textual sources of information and legitimized knowledge. It is also a flexible
and adaptable metaphor, with a range of possibilities, including occult books
of secrets, instruction manuals, and recipe books.
If we walk around to the other side of the genome-as-book display, we see
the inside of the book. From this side, it looks like an encyclopedia with
two columns of dense text, boldfaced headings announcing the different
entries (Amyoidosis, hereditary kidney disease and red hair), and, along
the page edges, twenty-three numbered tabs marking off the chapters, one for
each chromosome. Look closely and the densely packed text is composed of
strings of letters, but only the four lettersA, T, C, and Gused to repre-
sent the four bases of DNA. The text itself is not really the focus of the dis-
play; the encyclopedic pages are more of a background to the explanation and
instructions that appear on the Plexiglas shield covering the book. Remem-
ber, the book is about nine feet tall. The Plexiglas shield is fashioned as a pro-
tective covering, one that we might find in a stuffier museum covering a pre-
cious artifact or original text that is so old it cannot be touched without its
pages crumbling.
The text on the Plexiglas merges the genre of the museum placard with
instructions on how to use the book. To focus on the levels of figurability, we
may want to take a sidelong glance at the instructions implications for the abil-
ity of the genome-as-book to stand alone as a source of meaning and knowl-
edge, without the scaffolding of instructions, interpretive guidelines, and the
blunt statements about its epistemic and cultural significance. We might also
notice that the secret-recipe-book metaphor has been articulated into layers,
detailing the relationship of the metaphor to the genome. But the layers also
introduce some ambiguity: what now constitutes the secret knowledge pro-
vided by the book? Is it the text of four letters or is it the reading instructions
and the reading apparatus? And, what are we doing as we are looking through
the Plexiglas at the book? Does the reading apparatus make us into the equiv-
alent of the geneticist who can see and read the code? If we were in the busi-
ness of catching the book at assuming the posture of a transcendental signifier,
we might sort through more carefully these ambiguities and the places where
GENOME 117
the metaphors give way to imprecision. But thats not what were doing here.
After all, were looking at a nine-foot mock-up of a book.
Our focus here is on the layers and levels of figurability and how those
layers and levels are marked both by the physical display and by the text. This
is where the recipe metaphor comes in particularly handythe placard
description explains that the genes are the recipes and shows that we need to
understand the conversion table (the metaphors made explicit) and the
instructions to use the recipe book.
On the Plexiglas display, the recipe metaphor is made explicit with a
conversion chart (1 recipe = 1 gene), guidelines for thinking about genes
and looking up recipes, and a simile that likens the genome to a huge
recipe book (Figure 3). The web version of the exhibit does not have the
assistance of a larger-than-life materialization of the book metaphor, and thus
relies on an introductory comment: It may help to think of it like this: 1
recipe book = 1 genome. . . . The comment helps orient the viewer to the
recipe metaphor, emphasizing the value of the metaphor as a heuristic.
In addition to the cues that call attention to the metaphor and the guide-
lines for using the metaphor to think about genes and genomes, both the
physical and the web version also provide an explanation of the implications
of the recipe metaphor for thinking about the significance of genes and
genomes as determinants of who and what we are: Just as the cooking envi-
ronment . . . can change how a recipe turns out, your surroundings influence
how you turn out. . . . You are the product of your genes, your experiences,
your surroundingsand chance.
The explication of the recipe metaphor appears on a transparent shield.
But this is not a display of faith in the transparency of scientific language.
Quite the contrary. This is figurative language being foregrounded as figura-
tive language to give more meaning to the textual object behind it. The
explication, the conversion chart, the similes, and the guidelines put into
dramatic relief the nontransparency of the book metaphor. Behind the trans-
parent shield is the mock-up of the genome-as-book metaphor. As a
metaphor, the book is not quite as explicit as the recipe; there are no guide-
lines telling us that the genome is like a book. It is just standing there as a rep-
resentation: the genome as book. Still, there are some visual clues that we are
not, in fact, looking at a real genome. The bookness of this gigantic genome
is rather overdone and cartoon-like, with the little tabs in the margins mark-
ing the chapters.
The recipe metaphor is explicated and gives more meaning to the book
metaphor that stands behind it. The display depicts layers of metaphors. The
outer layer functions as a mere metaphor to help us access the more central
metaphor of the book. The book metaphor is, in turn, encasing the metaphor of
the genome as code. The code is closer to what Halloran and Bradford describe
as a central heuristic. It is not that the genome is like a code; it is a code.
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 118
119
FIGURE 3
The text that appears on the Plexiglas covering the giant book display
Genes are recipes
Your genome is like a huge recipe book
with 30,000 to 40,000 recipes. They
spell out the ingredients for the thou-
sands of proteins that make and main-
tain your body.
Genes dont work alone
Your genetic recipes are influenced by
your surroundings. Just as the cooking
environment such as oven temperature
or altitude can change how a recipe
turns out, your surroundings influence
how you turn out. By determining
which genes you inherit from your par-
ents, chance also plays a role. You are
the product of your genes, your experi-
ences, your surroundingsand chance.
Conversion Key
1 letter = 1 base
A letter in DNAs code is a chemical
called a base. Four basesA, T, G, and
Cmake up the rungs of the DNA
ladder (A connects to T, G connects to
C). Your entire genome contains about
3 billion rungs.
1 word = 1 codon
A word is spelled by a sequence of
three bases in a row, such as TCG,
along one side of the DNA ladder.
Each three-letter word is called a
codon.
1 recipe = 1 gene
A recipe for making protein is in a
gene. Some genes contain the recipe
for a single protein; other genes can
make more than one protein. A gene is
a section of DNA on a chromosome.
23 chapters = 23 pairs of chromosomes
Your 23 chapters, or pairs of chromo-
somes, hold all your recipes.
Chromosomes are tightly bundled
threads of DNA and protein. Theyre
wrapped up like balls of string in the
nucleus of a cell.
1 recipe book = 1 genome
The recipe book with all your DNA
and genes is your genome-all the basic
instructions for a human.
Chromosome 4 Recipes
Open to a chapter and youll find all
the recipes on that particular chromo-
some. In Chapter 4 (chromosome #4),
youll find recipes for red hair, albumin
(a major protein in blood), dentin (an
ingredient in your teeth), and many,
many others. Some scientists think the
gene or genes for a very long life are on
#4. This chapter also holds genes that
contribute to Huntingtons disease, dia-
betes, and juvenile gum disease.
Looking Up a Recipe
Lets say you want to find a recipe, or
gene, for red hair. First, go to the table
of contents, or chromosome map, and
find chapter 4 (chromosome #4).
Then look in the table of contents for
that chapter. Youll find the red-hair
recipe below the recipe for amyloidosis,
a heredity kidney disease.
Now go to the red hair recipes page
(section of DNA). On this page youll
find the genetic codethe As, Ts, Cs,
and Gsfor the recipe for the protein
that makes red hair.
The epideictic training ground of the first room of the Genome: The
Secret of How Life Works exhibit offers multiple and layered lessons in
genetics and biology. The displays also guide the audience in using metaphors
to get the knowledge of genetics and in appreciating the value of tropes and
figures in the life sciences. The tropes and figures occupy center stage here.
They embody both the concepts of the life sciences and the social signifi-
cance of the life sciences. And, they offer training in recognizing the role of
metaphors in conceptualizing biological systems. The book of life display also
expresses another very important lesson about metaphors and tropes. With-
out quite expressing that we ought not to mistake the trope for the thing
itself, the implicit lesson of the book display is that while some tropes are
open to stylistic play, there are some tropes that are so much closer to the
truth of the matter that they ought to be understood as the thing itself.
REALI TY AND THE GENOMI C FRONTI ER
The playful atmosphereinvoked by the cookie factory, the gigantic book,
and display stations that invite visitors to pull levers and play with dolls
stops at the threshold to the second half of the genome exhibition. There is
a clearly marked passage point separating the first part from the second part.
Visitors enter the second part by passing through an archway labeled Living
on the Frontier. Another sign announces The Frontier Is Here. To pass
through the archway to learn about life on the frontier is to leave behind the
playfulness of the tropic interfaces. It is as though we are entering the zone of
the serious and the literal, crossing over the boundary into figural realism.
Apparently not even the frontier is to be recognized as a metaphor. There
are no cartoon figures to help us grasp the concept of a frontier and apply it
to the notions of technology and progress that are on display. No pictures of
covered wagons. No gestures to life on the American frontier. No pictures of
native Americans resisting the push of the frontiersmen. Certainly, no
acknowledgment of what this frontier might look like from the other side of
the cardboard claims of progress.
The exhibits comprising the genomic frontier include descriptions of
genetic tests for phenylketonuria, genetic research of Huntingtons disease,
forensic DNA analysis, and the development of genetically targeted pharma-
ceuticals. The one station that, on the surface, might appear to uphold the fig-
urative play of the earlier stationsthe one titled Genetic Detective Stories
is, it turns out, a fairly straightforward explanation of forensic DNA analysis.
In noting the place of figuration in science and in representations of sci-
ence, it is worth considering Latours recent argument for the importance of
standing guard against the separation of matters of fact and matters of con-
cern. In his essay Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of
Fact to Matters of Concern Latour addresses what he calls sturdy realism,
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 120
or the resilience of scientific realism despite the extensive efforts of critical
theory and critical science studies. He opens his essay with the example of
political strategists who oppose environmental control by arguing that global
warming is contingent and not fixed as an ultimate reality. In light of such
rhetorical maneuvers in public debate, Latour points out that critiques of sci-
ence and technology that work to demonstrate that what appears to be purely
factual is, actually, ideological are not quite as useful as they once were (or as
we once thought that they were). When we congratulate ourselves on
demonstrating that the apparently factual is actually ideological, we miss the
powerful science rhetoric that runs not on claims of factuality and value-neu-
trality but rather on denouncements of contingency and uncertainty.
Latours call to make critiques of science relevant to science rhetoric in
public discourse can be extended to the analysis of figurative language in
rhetoric of science and rhetoric about science. Critiques of scientific argu-
ments that demonstrate that what appears to be purely literal is, actually,
rhetorical does not necessarily defuse the authoritative power of science
rhetoric that claims reality as its foundation by denouncing fiction, figura-
tion, and rhetoric.
The gene, in all its uses, teaches me to see that in the play of figura-
tion, rhetorical boundaries are reaffirmed, reconstituted, and refigured.
Genes, ideas about genes, and representations of genes do not simply emerge
from the authoritative spaces of science. Rather, in being figured as being
grounded in the real and in being figured as emerging from authoritative
spaces, genes contribute to the reaffirmation of the boundaries of those
authoritative spaces. The boundaries that separate the rhetorical and the
contingent from the literal and the real, the boundaries that figure a distinc-
tion between rhetoric that belongs to science and rhetoric that belongs to
public culture are not encoded in texts beyond our reach; they are reconsti-
tuted within the rhetoric of science and within rhetoric about science. The
frontier of the genome display serves as a reminder, just as Johannsens speech
about the gene does, that the sources of legitimacy and the boundaries of
authoritative rhetoric are often figured within the texts that rely on those
sources and those boundaries.
Reality Check Theater
At the edge of the space devoted to the frontier, positioned as the last stop
before the exit of the exhibition, is a small alcove with a marquee identifying
it as the Reality Check Theater. Inside the theater, visitors can see clips
of popular science fiction films. The clips are strung together with a narration
that serves as a closing commentary for the exhibition, preparing visitors to
integrate what theyve learned at the museum with other representations of
genetics outside the museum:
GENOME 121
Leaving here today you now know lots of things you didnt know before and
being clued in to genetics you are likely to see genetics everywhere in the
world around you. In newspapers, magazines, and in the movies and from
some of what youll see you may start thinking that anything is possible.
The narrator of the Reality Check video is, once again, Eric Lander.
But here Lander has been transformed from the avuncular guide, inviting us
to play with metaphors to learn the secrets of life, to a polemicist warning
against literal interpretations of fictional accounts of genomic futures. The
video consists of clips from Jurassic Park, The Fly, and Gattacafilms that
advance dystopian views of corporate-controlled science, scientific experi-
ments gone awry, and new forms of eugenics and social control. Lander does
not directly address or counter the dystopian views; he takes a clip from each
film and uses it as a fictional antithesis for establishing the reality and real
progress of genomic research.
The first clip is the popular image of a genetically engineered dinosaur
theme park gone out of control, to which Landers voice-over responds:
Whoa!! Is Jurassic park really possible? Could we really bring back dinosaurs
from Jurassic DNA? With a scene extracted from Jurassic Park and presented
in the Reality Check Theater, Lander addresses the real feasibility of the fic-
tional scenario, answering his own questions: Well, probably not. No one
has ever succeeded in finding dinosaur DNA. And if they did it would prob-
ably be too old and deteriorated and its not clear its a good use of time and
money to try to bring back extinct monsters. Then, having dismissed the
value of the films ability to portray real possibilities and having provided reas-
surance that such outlandish endeavors probably wouldnt happen anyway,
Lander turns to an application of DNA technology that is both real and
uncontroversially beneficial: But scientists are using DNA technology to try
to keep todays endangered species from going extinct in the first place.
The movie The Fly, a story of the horrific consequences of an out-of-con-
trol experiment that merged a fly and a human genome, provides another fic-
tional antithesis, this one for real and purportedly beneficial gene-transfer
techniques: But on the other hand scientists have developed a technology
to take single individual genes and transfer them from one species to another.
Scientists are also moving genes to try to improve food.
The narration tacks back and forth between the outlandish examples of
science fiction and the real progress that scientists are making. Lander ends
with the importance of differentiating between fantasy and reality and
between entertainment and real issues:
Were getting better and better working with genes and cells and proteins
and all sorts of living organisms, from people to plants. So that in the future
it might not be a question of what we can do, maybe more what we should
do. We want to use the power of genetics to make a better world for our chil-
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 122
dren. The promise is enormous but not everything about genetics is clear
cut so its important to separate fantasy from reality, entertainment from real
issues. So go ahead, ask questions, talk about it.
What we, all of us, decide to do today creates the world of tomorrow.
The closing comments proclaim the importance of public participation
in directing science and technology. But the call for participation is con-
strained by the emphasis on marking a clear distinction between fiction and
reality. The issues raised in the fictional contextsthorny issues related to
the aspirations and responsibilities of profit-driven research institutions,
unforeseen consequence and irreversible changes to species and environ-
ments, the changing norms of health and health care, and the social and cul-
tural implications of genomic technologyare kept outside of the Reality
Check Theater. Public discourse related to genomic technology is presumably
to stay grounded in explicit claims on what is real and what is currently real-
istic and feasible. Landers commentary, combined with the exhibits on dis-
play along the genomic frontier, offer an explicit example of the assertion of
scientific realism in shaping public debate and in shaping opportunities for
public participation regarding matters of science and technology.
Landers commentary is reminiscent of Wilhelm Johannsens gene-nam-
ing speech in which he made a clearing of scientific realism for the gene by
setting it in antithesis to figurative language, fiction, pretending, and specu-
lations taken as fact. Johannsen figured the gene to function metonymically
as a claim on a material reality while projecting an immunity to the problems
of language and rhetorical style. The purpose of examining Johannsens text
in chapter three was not to catch him engaging in the promotion of myth or
effectively using stylistic devices while denouncing the influence of such
devices on the construction of scientific knowledge. Rather my aim was to
show how the antithesis of the figurative and the real worked to construct the
gene figure and, in turn, can help us to understand the consequences of the
rhetorical work of the gene.
Donna Haraway has warned of the loss of opportunities for critical exam-
ination when the gene stands as, in Sarah Franklins term, the trope of no
trope, or in Harways term, an object of genetic fetishism. In her critique of
the discourse of life itself, Haraway cautions against being swayed by the
capacity of genes to function rhetorically as a thing-in-itself where no trope
can be admitted. . . . To be outside the economy of troping is to be outside
finitude, morality, and difference, to be in a realm of pure being, to be One,
where the word is itself (Modest Witness 134).
The claims to progress on display at the genome exhibit are the kinds of
claims to progress that deserve public scrutiny and social and cultural cri-
tique. They are the kinds of claims to which we ought to bring critical atten-
tion to representations of genetic fetishism. The exhibits mark dramatic
GENOME 123
changes in health and medicine, agriculture, global research and global busi-
ness, and (as displayed by the list of exhibit sponsors) new kinds of alliances
of profit-driven corporations, public research organizations, and education
initiatives. Though the exhibit encourages participation, it sustains genetic
fetishism. By grounding itself in claims of the realistic and the feasible, the
exhibit expresses a sense of inevitable, though beneficial, progress and
deflects opportunities for critical examination.
The genome exhibit can be seen as a public display of the rhetorical
mechanisms that not only shape scientific knowledge and preserve a kind of
public authority for science but can also, if we let go of our rhetorical sensi-
bilities, work to deflect criticism. Much like in Johannsens speech that pre-
scribed the rhetorical work of the gene, the boundaries of troping and figura-
tive play are integral to the construction of the message and to the
construction of a powerful sense of authoritativeness. The stations in the first
part of the exhibit embody lessons regarding the productive role of tropes and
figures in conceptualizing biological systems. The genome as book display
incorporates a sense of the range of metaphoricity and rhetorical play, guid-
ing viewers to recognize some metaphors as openly figurative and to treat
other metaphors as representations of the real. Then the frontier installs a
boundary between figurative play and claims of reality and progress. The
boundary is similar to that which Johannsen asserted between the categories
of the rhetorical and the real, but the consequences of taking the boundary
literally are different. The potential effects of the rhetoric-reality boundary
are practically caricatured for us within the Reality Check Theater as we are
encouraged to ask questions and participate in the public life of science but
discouraged from engaging with the important issues and problems that are
raised in fictional contexts or presented in arguments that are overtly and
unapologetically rhetorical. I am always wary of such authoritative assertions
of reality. But I am heartened by the opportunity to step back and note the
playfulness of the Reality Check Theater marquee, to look around at all the
rhetorical play on display, and to see the frontier as a potent reminder that
no boundary asserted between the rhetorical and the real should ever be
taken too literally.
HOW THE GENE GOT ITS GROOVE 124
CHAPTER ONE. I NTRODUCTI ON
1. For historical overviews of the meanings of genes in twentieth-century life sci-
ences, see Elof Axel Carlsons The Gene: A Critical History; Evelyn Fox Kellers The
Century of the Gene; and Beurton, Falk, and Rheinbergers collected volume The Con-
cept of the Gene in Development and Evolution. For cultural studies analyses of genes see,
for example, Donna Haraways Modest Witness, and Adam Hedgecoes article Trans-
forming Genes.
2. See the previous note. For a rhetorical perspective on the changing meaning
of genes, with special emphasis on the public meaning of genes, see Celeste Condits
The Meanings of the Gene.
3. It may be worth noting that despite the studys kinship with semiotics, the
iconicity of the gene is not iconicity in the sense of Charles Sanders Peirces semiotic
definition of iconicity in which the signifier resembles the thing signified. Nelkin and
Lindee do note the use of the double helix as a visual representation of DNA, but the
gene as an icon is an arbitrary sign in relation to the meanings that it signifies. To
identify the gene as a cultural icon is to identify the cultural production and cultural
work of the sign: As a cultural icon, [the genes] meanings mirror public expectations,
social tensions, and political agendas (199). The cultural iconicity calls attention to
the symbolic and persuasive powers of the gene, much like a religious icon stands in
for multiple, and at times contradictory, particular meanings while providing a shared
sense of the sacred.
CHAPTER TWO. GENETI C ORI GI N STORI ES
1. I am simplifying here. The rule of dominance is a rule that emerged from
watching several successive generations of plants. Mendel established what he called
pure lines of plants: plants that consistently produced either violet or white flowers
and then crossed those pure lines with one another. The rule of dominance then
shows up in the second and third generation of plants produced by the cross of those
pure-line plants.
2. Kragh uses the case of Mendel as a prime example for emphasizing the value
of both anachronical (viewing the past in light of later knowledge and later termi-
125
Notes
nology) and diachronical (viewing past events in the context of the past) approaches
to the history of science. Kragh argues that history of science requires a judicious
incorporation of both perspectives.
3. Mendel specifically addresses the eighteenth-century work of Klreuter and
the nineteenth-century work of Grtner. Klreuter, in the 1760s, published papers on
his own systematic studies of plant hybrids and his findings on the pollination process.
Grtner, in the 1830s and 1840s, conducted extensive crossbreeding experiments,
confirming what Klreuter had found and reporting on the variability of the second
generation of crossbred plants (Sturtevant 3).
4. Froggatt and Nevin provide a rich and comprehensive overview of the con-
flict. Farrall examines the conflict for extending Kuhns theory of paradigm shifts and
conflict in science. MacKensie and Barnes examine the case as an example of the
social and ideological influences that shape scientific research agendas.
CHAPTER THREE. PRESCRI BI NG RHETORI CAL WORK:
GENETI C THEORI ES, GEMMULES, AND GENES
1. Translation by Michele Braun.
2. My observation of Darwins use of figures is limited to his accumulation and
alignment of examples for the sake of advocating a unifying theory. For a study of Dar-
wins employment of figures and investment of empirical knowledge with structures of
reasoning, see Fahnestocks Rhetorical Figures in Science (1999).
3. For an analysis of the rhetorical work of hedging and other devices of reduc-
ing certainty in scientific writing, see Jeanne Fahnestocks Accommodating Science
(1993). See also Latour and Woolgars taxonomy of statement types (7779), which
Fahnestock both borrows and evaluates for its applicability to rhetorical analysis.
4. In the previous chapter, I described, as many twentieth-century geneticists and
historians have, Mendels experiments in terms of genes. Though Mendel did not
express any notion of genes and did not argue for any such conceptual unit, he is often
credited with, at the very least, pointing to the existence of genes and providing the
foundation for a comprehensive theory of heredity. In a sense, though, Darwin is argu-
ing for the need for just such a theory of heredity, a theory that Mendelism of the
twentieth century fulfills and gets projected back onto the work of Darwins contem-
porary. Its ironic that Darwin calls for a comprehensive theory in the same decade
that Mendel publishes his work. Mendel doesnt present it as a comprehensive theory,
but he does get credited for it in that way.
CHAPTER FOUR. GENES ON MAI N STREET
1. This article is a strong example of the deliberate style that Time had been cul-
tivating since its very first issue. Historian of American magazines James Playsted
Wood characterizes that deliberate style as one of affecting an air of brassy omni-
science. Established the magazine in 1923, initiators set out to write with complete
assurance, ex cathedra authority, and metallic certaintyand a professed commit-
NOTES 126
ment to give both sides of a story but clearly indicate which side it believed to have
the strongest position (Wood 207210).
2. Most of Lysenkos commentary on heredity was focused on plants, but com-
ments that he made in a speech in 1935 provide an example of his articulation of com-
munist values in terms of heredity: In our Soviet Union, comrade, people are not
born. Human organisms are born, but people are created from organisms in our coun-
trytractor drives, motorists, mechanics, academicians, scientists, and so on. And I
am one of the people created in this way. I was not born a human being, I was made as
a human being. And to feel myself such, comrades, in such a positionit is to be more
than happy (quoted in Soyfer 63).
CHAPTER SI X. FI GURATI VELY SPEAKI NG:
GENES, SEXUALI TY, AND THE AUTHORI TY OF SCI ENCE
1. Research conducted by Dick Swaab, published in 1990, also linked differences
in brain structures with male homosexuality [D. F. Swaab and M. A. Hofman, An
Enlarged Suprachiasmatic Nucleus in Homosexual Men, Brain Research 537, 141
(1990)]. For more discussion of Swaabs and LeVays studies, see Barinaga (1991) and
Maddox (1991).
2. For analyses of the norms of scientific genres, see Bazerman as well as Gross.
CHAPTER SEVEN. GENOME: THE SECRET OF
HOW TROPES WORK I N THE LI FE SCI ENCES
1. Though my own source for the texts and transcripts incorporated in the museum
exhibit was the exhibit space itself, pictures of the exhibit and most of the texts and
transcripts are available through the Pfizer website: http://genome.pfizer.com/index.cfm.
2. See Leah Ceccarelli (2004) for the value of mixed metaphors in communica-
tions of genomics.
NOTES 127
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Amerine, Ronald, 111, 113
Angier, Natalie, 81
Aristotle, 105
Bailey, Michael, 8587, 9091, 95
Baker, Richard, 6062
Bateson, William, 17, 2128, 30
Bazerman, Charles, 4647
Bilmes, Jack, 111, 113
biological determinism, 81, 103, 10
biometrics, 2326, 38, 39, 4445
Black, Max, 113
Blair, Carole, 6
boundary objects. See genes as boundary
object
boundary work, 2, 30, 3941, 6364, 72,
93, 98105. See also genes as bound-
ary object
Bradford, Annette Norris, 10,
115118
Bridges, Calvin Blackman, 11, 52
Burke, Kenneth, 10, 43
Carlson, Elof Axel, 2425, 30, 50,
125n1
Ceccarelli, Leah, 10, 127n2
Condit, Celeste, 53, 125n2
Crick, Francis H. C., 12, 69, 7379,
115116
Darwin, Charles, 11, 2122, 2938,
4548, 8990, 126n4
Darwinism, 17, 2227
Dawkins, Richard,15, 68
de Vries, Hugo, 20, 32, 35
Downey, Gary Lee, 9394
DNA 14, 7, 61, 65, 69, 7379, 108110
grooves in DNA structure, 910
Dumit, Joseph, 9394
Dunn, Leslie Clarence, 2021, 24
electron microscope, 60
epideictic rhetoric, 50, 54, 105106,
114120
epistemic thing, 6971. See also genes as
boundary object
Fahnestock, Jeanne, 5, 6669,
126nn23
Falk, Raphael, 51, 7576
Farrall, Lyndsey A., 23
Franklin, Sarah, 123
Galton, Francis, 3941
gemmules, 11, 3235, 4647, 8890
genes
as autonomous self-stabilizing units,
75
as boundary object, 5, 6979, 8283,
9396, 98, 100103
as cultural icon, 79, 50, 61, 125n3
as material, 51, 9093
as metonymy,17, 59, 63, 6566, 85,
103, 123
as real, 6, 16, 3747, 51, 60, 61,
7778
as rhetorical invention, 3, 2932,
3647
135
Index
as rhetorical figure, 3, 6669, 79
as visible, 5253
definitions of, 46, 13, 2932, 36,
4143, 53, 125n1
gay genes, 13, 81104
groove of. See DNA grooves
and Mendels experiments, 1620,
126n4
in relation to fiction, imagination, or
fantasy, 4042, 5152, 5860
white (w) gene, 100103
genotype theory, 3647
genotype, definition of, 43
genotype-phenotype distinction, 44
Graham, Loren, 57
Griesemer, James, 5, 6973, 82, 98
grooves. See DNA
Gross, Alan G., 10
Halloran, S. Michael, 10, 77, 115118
Hamer, Dean, 8687, 92, 95, 97
Haraway, Donna, 3536, 38, 70, 123,
125n1
Hubbard, Ruth, 45
Jasinski, James, 105
Johannsen, Wilhelm, 8, 16, 19, 2932,
3647, 65, 66, 77, 85, 121, 123
Johnson, Mark, 94, 112
Kay, Lily, 69, 116
Keller, Evelyn Fox, 7576, 125n1
Kragh, Helge, 19, 125n2
Kuhn, Thomas, 125n4
Lakoff, George, 94, 112
Lamarckian notion of acquired charac-
teristics, 37
Lander, Eric, 108110, 112, 115117,
122123
Latour, Bruno, 70, 71, 120121, 126n3
LeVay, Simon, 8586, 95
Lindee, M. Susan, 2, 78, 125n3
Locke, John, 42, 53
Lysenko, Trofim and Lysenkoism, 12,
5660, 63, 127n2
Mendel, Gregor, 11, 1628, 39,
125nn13, 126n4
Mendelism, 11, 16, 2026, 30, 40, 43,
45, 126n4
metonymy,10, 43, 63, 91, 108. See also
gene as metonymy
Morgan, T. H., 5052, 58, 100101
Muller, Herman J., 5152, 62
Nelkin, Dorothy, 2, 78, 125n3
Nietzsche, Friedrich,116
Odenwald, Ward, 8689, 99
Olby, Robert, 19
pangene, 30, 32
pangenesis, 3136, 37, 4547
Pearson, Carl, 24, 25, 40
Pease, Daniel, 6062
phenotype, 19, 4245
Pillard, Richard, 8387, 9091
Platos myth of the cave, 45
Rasmussen, Nicolas, 60
realism. See scientific realism
Rheinberger, Hans-Jorg, 5, 65, 6971,
100
rhetorical figures. See genes as rhetorical
figure
rhetorical work, introduced, 210
Ritvo, Harriet, 33
scientific realism, 10, 36, 43, 63,
121123
Soyfer, Valery, 58
Star, Susan Leigh, 5, 6973, 82, 98
Sturtevant, Alfred Henry, 32, 126n3
Thomson, J. A., 35
Wald, Elijah, 45
Watson, James, 12, 69, 7379,
115115
Weismann, August, 3941
Weldon, W. F. R., 2226, 28
Zhang, Shang-Ding, 8689, 99
INDEX 136
genes (continued)