The Gene: History of an Idea

Fall 2017 quarter

Taught by

genetics, molecular biology

What is a gene? How does a gene work? Where does a gene come from? Why might we consider a gene an idea?

In this program, we examine the history of the gene, a term that has accumulated multiple meanings over time—an abstract particle of inheritance, a unit of DNA sequence encoding a protein, a script for synthesizing imagined new activities. The current model incorporates metaphors of texts and codes, in which gene action invokes analogies of reading and deciphering. In the first half of the quarter, we will introduce elements of classical genetics, including chromosome behavior, Mendel's principles of segregation and independent assortment, and genetic linkage. In the second half, we will study the molecular mechanisms underlying gene function, including DNA structure and replication, transcription, translation, gene regulation, and genome editing. We will carry out experiments illustrating these concepts in the laboratory. In addition to a rigorous scientific curriculum, we will be reading philosophy, history of science, and fiction to give us insights into the development of the idea of the gene, and to help us grapple with some of the ethical and political issues arising from the application of genetic technology and information. We anticipate reading such authors as Siddhartha Mukherjee, Evelyn Fox Keller, Michael Sandel, and Kazuo Ishiguro.

Program activities will include lectures, workshops, labs, and seminar. Student learning will be assessed by a program portfolio, exams, writing assignments, and a lab notebook. Possible credit equivalencies include introductory genetics and molecular biology, and history and philosophy of science.

Program Details

Fields of Study

biology philosophy of science

Preparatory For

biology and medicine.


Fall Signature

Location and Schedule

Campus Location


Time Offered


Advertised Schedule

First class meeting: Monday, September 25 at 9am (Sem II E2105)

Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning