10 - Gene Concepts: Fragments from the Perspective of Molecular Biology  pp. 219-239

By Hans-Jörg Rheinberger

Image View Previous Chapter Next Chapter

‘[It is] the vague, the unknown that moves the world.’

(Bernard 1954, 26)


The paper is divided into three parts. In the first part, I argue for an epistemology of the imprecise and try to characterize the historical and disciplinary trajectory of gene representations as the trajectory of an exemplar of a boundary object. In the second part, I follow the apparently simple solution of the gene problem to which early molecular biology gave rise, and I retrace some of the steps and events through which the later development of molecular biology came to explode this simple notion. The last part derives some conjectures from this story and seizes upon the notion of integron developed by Francois Jacob in order to establish a symmetrical perspective on genomes and phenomes.


In what follows, I intend to cast some light on the changing epistemic and experimental dispositions through which molecular biology came to deal with genes. The paper is meant neither as a systematic assessment nor as a critique of the way molecular biology has appropriated this concept. Nor will I be able to retrace the history of the gene as an object of experimentation in molecular biology in all its complexity. My concern in this overview is to point out, in a loose and associative fashion, some questions that I think will have to be addressed if we wish to understand where the second half of the twentieth century has taken us with respect to that unit that Herman J. Muller, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's pea work, described with the following words.