(this project has been financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation from February, 2010, to January, 2014)

Bild: Seelenwärmer: Gerda Steiner & Jörg Lenzlinger / Installation in der Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen
Seelenwärmer: Gerda Steiner & Jörg Lenzlinger / Installation in der Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen

Head project

Marianne Sommer

History Within: The Phylogenetic Memory of Bones, Organisms, and Molecules engages the cultural history of the historical life sciences. History Within analyzes the contributions that sciences such as evolutionary biology, (paleo)anthropology, primatology, and human genetics have made to cultures of remembrance since the turn of the 20th century. How do these sciences provide orientation, meaning, and identity through the popularization and commercialization of origin narratives and historical images? The project focuses on the reconstruction and communication of biologically founded history – the scientific theories, objects, practices, media, genres, and institutions involved –, as well as on processes of reception, such as the appropriation, translation, and rejection of scientific history by particular individuals and groups and in different media and genres.

Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer
Project leader, from February, 2010, to January, 2014, as Swiss National Science Foundation Professor
T +41 41 229 56 15

Zoos – Bonobos in the Making


PhD-Project: Sandra Nicolodi

Today the bonobos – along with the chimpanzees – are considered to be our closest genetic relatives. Furthermore, as so called "make love not war"-primate, the bonobo was offered as an alternative evolutionary model to its bellicose cousins. The dissertation project will trace such and other understandings of kinship focussing on zoos as an important production site of "bonobo knowledge" and ask how this knowledge production interacts with the biopolitical call to preserve our closest relatives. The working title refers to the assumption that "’animals’ emerge not as a preexisting category but as something produced by […] conjoint actions, and given particular power within the set of actions we call science" as Lynda Birke, Mette Bryld and Nina Lykke have stated. The project focuses on these practices in the special framework of the zoo in the aftermath of the shift to breeding programs, the exchanges between institutions on a global scale and the various (human and non-human) actors involved.

Lic. phil. Sandra Nicolodi
PhD Student

Telomeres and Terminal Genes: The Phylogenetic Memory of Aging Research

Post-Doc-Project: Crispin Barker

Since the mid-twentieth century, genetics, molecular biology, and biophysics have redefined aging and rewritten the ways in which it is interpreted in modern societies and cultures. This project investigates how the gene, structural non-coding elements of the DNA molecule (such as telomeres), and the fidelity of transcribing and expressing genetic information developed into the authoritative symbols of how and why we age; the crystallization of the popular consensus that there is an evolutionary purpose to senescence; why tampering with human mortality emerged as the dominant meme for imparting moral lessons to the public about the hazards of scientific research; and how this has contributed to the larger reconstruction, communication, and commercialization of cultures of remembrance founded in the life sciences.

Dr. Crispin Barker
Post-Doc (Feb. 2011-Jan. 2014)

The Making of a Magic Mountain – Atapuerca, Spanish Paleoanthropology and National Identity

Post-Doc Project: Oliver Hochadel

I am interested in how evidence is created in a field such as human-origins-research that is marked by epistemological uncertainty and endemic controversies. How do the researchers present their work in the public sphere and how do the media and the general public construct the image of paleoanthropology and narratives of "where we come from"? My case study is the excavation in Atapuerca (Spain), arguably the most important site for paleoanthropology in Europe. Atapuerca, little known until 1992, became within less than ten years the (imagined) starting point of Spanish history.
My hypothesis is that despite its appeal to science as an international enterprise, the frame of the nation is indispensable in human-origins-research. This is due to the interactive process in which "evidence" is co-produced by scientists, the media, the funding bodies and politics. The case of the "magic mountain" of Atapuerca will serve to conceptualize a new form of nationalist appropriation of fossils. In this form of "nationalism light", ancient bones are not used in a chauvinist or racist way anymore but become "ambassadors", representing their country on the global stage. Methodologically, this project draws on recent approaches from the history of science and science studies.

Dr. Oliver Hochadel
Visiting Scholar (Sept.-Dec. 2010)


The project "History Within: The Phylogenetic Memory of Bones, Organisms, and Molecules" and cooperates with:Research Group: "Historicizing Knowledge about Human Biological Diversity in the 20th Century", Dr. Veronika Lipphardt, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte (MPIWG) Berlin