Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 41, Issue 3, pp 473–528

History in the Gene: Negotiations Between Molecular and Organismal Anthropology


DOI: 10.1007/s10739-008-9150-3

Cite this article as:
Sommer, M. J Hist Biol (2008) 41: 473. doi:10.1007/s10739-008-9150-3


In the advertising discourse of human genetic database projects, of genetic ancestry tracing companies, and in popular books on anthropological genetics, what I refer to as the anthropological gene and genome appear as documents of human history, by far surpassing the written record and oral history in scope and accuracy as archives of our past. How did macromolecules become “documents of human evolutionary history”? Historically, molecular anthropology, a term introduced by Emile Zuckerkandl in 1962 to characterize the study of primate phylogeny and human evolution on the molecular level, asserted its claim to the privilege of interpretation regarding hominoid, hominid, and human phylogeny and evolution vis-à-vis other historical sciences such as evolutionary biology, physical anthropology, and paleoanthropology. This process will be discussed on the basis of three key conferences on primate classification and evolution that brought together exponents of the respective fields and that were held in approximately ten-years intervals between the early 1960s and the 1980s. I show how the anthropological gene and genome gained their status as the most fundamental, clean, and direct records of historical information, and how the prioritizing of these epistemic objects was part of a complex involving the objectivity of numbers, logic, and mathematics, the objectivity of machines and instruments, and the objectivity seen to reside in the epistemic objects themselves.


the history of molecular anthropologythe molecularization of anthropologyhuman population geneticshuman genetic diversity projectsgenetic ancestry tracingpaleoanthropologyphysical anthropologyevolutionary biologythe anthropological geneanthropological DNAthe anthropological genomethe political and epistemic values of the classical molecular genegenetic determinismmolecular clockhuman phylogenyhuman evolutionhuman historyhuman originorigin storiesprimate phylogenyprimate evolutionanimal-human boundaryhyman `races'scientific conferencesBurg Wartenstein symposiaEmile ZuckerkandlLinus PaulingMorris GoodmanVincent SarichAllan WilsonRebecca CannMark StonekingSherwood WashburnGeorge Gaylord SimpsonTheodosius DobzhanskyErnst MayrMilford Wolpoff

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland