History of Cloning

On the History of Cloning. A Comparative Analysis of Life Sciences in Germany since 1950

Christina Brandt

Cooperation Partners: 

Department of History of Sciences, Technical University Braunschweig, Center for Literary Research, Berlin, Center for Biology and Society, Arizona State University

This project aimed at uncovering the scientific and cultural layers in the twentieth century history of cloning. The study addressed the relationship between material practices and concept formation within biological research on the one hand and on the other, popular representations, public debates, and cultural images that flourished around the figure of the “clone.” The main focus was on the history of the life sciences in (West-) Germany, which was compared to the situation in the USA and Great Britain. This comparative perspective also raised the question of whether national research styles continued in an increasingly international organized scientific landscape during the second half of the twentieth century. To specify at what level national peculiarities may still play a part is another overarching goal of this project.

Three fields are important for understanding the history of cloning: 1) the emergence of the clone as an epistemic and as a technical object between the 1950s and the 1990s, 2) the clone as an interdisciplinary and interdiscoursive element, and 3) the clone as a cultural phenomenon.

(1) The project investigated the dynamics and interactions of experimental representation through which techniques of cloning were developed during the last decades. The study tried to open a broader perspective on the history of cloning by exploring the research on transplantation of nuclei and the variety of questions that were linked to these approaches on very different objects like acetabularia, insects, frogs, or mice, as well as research on the somatic hybridization of plants by fusion of protoplasts. A main focus of the studies lay on changes in German developmental biology during the 1970s and 1980s (experimentation on mouse embryos).

(2) The second field of investigation concerned the history of the concept of the “clone.” At the turn of the twentieth century, the term “clone” was newly coined to designate plants that propagated vegetatively from a common ancestor. During the twentieth century the concept passed through very different research areas: the term was particularly used in research on cell cultures since the late 1940s. With the notion of “gene cloning” it entered the field of genetic engineering in the 1970s, and, at the same time, the terminology became common in the realm of developmental biology. Exploring this circulation of the term through different research areas, the study traces the semantic shifts in the concept of clone. The main question of this part regarded the interplay of experimental practices and the formation of scientific concepts. This issue was extended in a third step by focussing on the cultural dimensions of the history of cloning.

(3) The third line of research dealt with the images and phantasms that have been associated with the scientific practices of cloning at least since the early 1960s. The main subject matter of this part consisted of novels and science fiction. This literature not only had a strong influence on today's understanding of what a “clone” is; these novels, which often used ethical positions as central theme, played an important role in the early debates about the risks of bioscience. The public debates about cloning and genetic engineering in Germany since the 1970s were analyzed with regard to the demarcation between scientific facts and popular fiction.

Funding Institutions

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft