Strange history: the fall of Rome explained in Hereditas.

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Abstract

In 1921 Hereditas published an article on the fall of Rome written by the famous classical scholar Martin P:son Nilsson. Why was a paper on this unexpected topic printed in the newly founded journal? To Nilsson, the demise of the Roman Empire was explained by the "bastardization" occurring between "races" from different parts of the realm. Offspring from mixed couples were of a less stable "type" than their parents, due to the breaking up by recombination of the original hereditary dispositions, which led to a general loss of competence to rule and govern. Thus, the "hardness" of human genes, together with their recombination, was - according to Nilsson - the main cause of the fall of Rome. Nilsson's argument is not particularly convincingly presented. Human "races" are taken to have the same genetic structure as inbred crop strains, and Nilsson believes in a metaphysical unity between the individual and the race to which it belongs. However, in my view, Martin P:son Nilsson and his friend Herman Nilsson-Ehle had wider aims with the article than to explain a historical event. The article can be read as indicating strong support from the classical human sciences to the ambitious new science of genetics. Support is also transferred from genetics to the conservative worldview, where the immutability and inflexibility of the Mendelian genes are used to strengthen the wish for greater stability in politics and life. The strange article in Hereditas can, thus, be read as an early instance in the - still ongoing - tug-of-war between the conservative and the liberal ideological poles over how genetic results best are socially interpreted.

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Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Genetics
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)132-139
JournalHereditas
Volume151
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Publication categoryResearch
Peer-reviewedYes