Photo of Dr Staffan Müller-Wille

Dr Staffan Müller-Wille

Research Interests

In my research, I approach questions of epistemology – questions concerning how knowledge is attained and how it changes over time – through detailed historical case studies covering the history of the life sciences since the early modern period. I am particularly interested in the role of classification in the life sciences, a subject that remains poorly understood, despite its fundamental significance for how we acquire knowledge about the living world.

Three research strands structure my work:

1. History and Philosophy of Systematics

Systematics is the discipline that studies biodiversity by classifying and naming organisms. Its history has so far largely been written as a history of ideas. In contrast, I argue that the primary aim of modern systematics is not the representation of nature, but the storage, organisation, and mobilisation of knowledge about nature. Systematics is an essential component of our "built information environment" (Bowker and Star), and its fundamental operations -- naming, grouping, and ranking organisms -- have to be understood as material practices that shape our understanding of the natural world.

In the past four years, I have studied these practices by looking at the ways in which the eighteenth-century naturalist Carl Linnaeus assembled, filed, and cross-referenced information about plants and their medicinal virtues. The research was supported by the Wellcome Trust, and was carried out in close collaboration with Dr. Isabelle Charmantier. We could show that Linnaeus experimented with a range of information technologies -- such as lists, or paper slips resembling modern index cards -- troughout his career, and that these technologies informed his taxonomic ideas. For more details and a list of publications, see the project's website.

I am currently exploring ideas for a collaborative project on the history and philosophy of modern systematics (19th and 20th centuries) as a guest of  the Sciences of the Archives and Histories of Big Data working groups at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

2. History of Heredity

From 2001 to 2011 I collaborated closely with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin in a long-term, interdisciplinary project on the cultural practices in which knowledge of "heredity" was produced and in which it unfolded its effects over the past four centuries. The  backbone of this project consisted  in a series of international workshops that drew together expertise from the history of science, medicine, law, economics, and art as well as political history and anthropology. Its main results may be summarized as follows:

The main results of this project have now been published as a book (A Cultural History of Heredity, Chicago, 2012), and can be summarized as follows:

  • Heredity is a biological concept that dates back to the early nineteenth century. Before, organic reproduction was conceptualized as an individual act of creation.
  • Heredity was a concept directed at explaining hereditary variation, rather than intergenerational stability as such.
  • With genetics and molecular biology in the twentieth century, heredity receded into the background of accepted knowledge, foregrounding questions of evolution and development in new ways.

Although this project is largely completed, I continue to be interested in particular aspects of the history of heredity, such as its role as a capricious force in theories of evolution, its relation to cell theory and concepts of specificity, the status of the gene as a "concept in flux", and the interplay of statistics and hereditary research around 1900.

3. History of Race and Kinship

One of my long term interests has been in the history of race and kinship in anthropology. In contrast to a longstanding tradition which largely treats the history of race as a the history of a false idea, I am interested in its pragmatic and political dimensions, building on a continental understandiong of concepts as tools, rather than representations. In the academic year 2011/2012 I pursued this project as a research fellow in the Max Planck Resecrh Group "Historicizing Knowledge about Human Biological Diversity in the 20th Centuryin Berlin. I will be resuming this line of my reseach in 2017 as fellow of an international research group on "Kinship and Politics" at the Centre for Interdiscipilinary Research, Bielefeld (Germany).

Research Project Websites:

Re-Writing the System of Nature: Linnaeus's Use of Writing Technologies (Funded by the Wellcome Trust, 2009-2013)

A Cultural History of Heredity (Funded by the Karl Schaedler Foundation, British Academy, Wellcome Trust, British Council and German Academic Exchange Service)

Recent publications:

Marianne Sommer, Staffan Müller-Wille, Carsten Reinhardt (eds.). Handbuch Wissenschaftsgeschichte. Stuttgart: Metzler Verlag.

Gregor Mendel (2016). Experiments on Plant Hybrids (1866). Translation and commentary by Staffan Müller-Wille and Kersten Hall. British Society for the History of Science Translation Series. URL=http://www.bshs.org.uk/mendel.

Staffan Müller-Wille and Christina Brandt (eds.). Heredity Explored: Between Public Domain and Experimental Science, 1850-1930. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Isabelle Charmantier and Staffan Müller-Wille, “Carl Linnaeus’s Botanical Paper Slips (1767–1773),“ Intellectual History Review, 24 (2014), 215–238.

Staffan Müller-Wille. "Race and History: Comments from an Epistemological Point of View." Science, Technology, and Human Values, 39 (2014), 597–606.

Bernd Gausemeier, Staffan Müller-Wille and Edmund Ramsden (eds). Human Heredity in the Twentieth Century. London: Pickering and Chatto

Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. A Cultural History of Heredity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Staffan Müller-Wille and James Delbourgo. “Introduction to Isis Focus Section ‘Listmania’.Isis, 103 (2012), 710–715.

Staffan Müller-Wille and Isabelle Charmantier. “Natural history and information overload: The case of Linnaeus.” Studies in Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43 (2012), 4–15.

Research Supervision

 

  • History and philosophy of science
  • History and philosophy of the life sciences (especially natural history and genetics)
  • History and philosophy of anthropology

 

Research Students

Emily Stone, University of Exeter

Marcus Stelter, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg

Mark Canciani, University of the Basque Country, San Sebastián

Naomi Yuval, Tel Aviv University

Maria do Mar Gago, University of Lisbon

 

Completed:

 

Sarah Jones, University of Exeter

James Lowe, University of Exeter, 2015

Tarquin Holmes, University of Exeter, 2015

Temilola Alanamu, University of Exeter, 2015

Antonios Basoukos, University of Exeter, 2014

Pascal Germann, University of Zurich, 2014

Pierre-Olivier Methot, University of Exeter, 2012

Giuditta Parolini, University of Bologna, 2013

Robert Meunier, University of Milan, 2012