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A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock Study Guide & Plot Summary

Evelyn Fox Keller
This Study Guide consists of approximately 31 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of A Feeling for the Organism.
This section contains 484 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Purchase our A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock Study Guide

A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock Summary & Study Guide Description

A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller.

Plot Summary

A Feeling for the Organism is the story of the rise, marginalization and rediscovery of Barbara McClintock and her crucially important work in cytology and genetics, which ultimately led to a revolution in the understanding of the human genome. The author of the book, Evelyn Keller, is a geneticist herself who learned of McClintock's pivotal work as she passed through graduate school. She decided to explore the life of this unusual woman and scientist, telling McClintock's story in her own words and the words of those who knew her.

The book begins with a historical overview of the culture of the genetics community and related sciences from the 1920s through the 1980s, the vast stretch of time over which McClintock's work took place. We discover that early in the 1920s, genetics was a kind of standalone science. It was only rediscovered after Mendel in 1900, two years before McClintock was born. She entered Cornell in 1919, studying the chromosomes of the Drosophila fruit fly and corn, the only two species whose chromosomes were regularly studied at the time. During the 1920s and '30s the world of genetics was focused on the chromosome. At the time, genes were only theoretical entities postulated due to theory; they had not been directly observed. McClintock's work at the chromosomal level would reveal mechanisms of replication and informational exchange that could not be reduced to the gene or molecular level of nature. And when the revolution of molecular biology took place in the 1950s, her work was marginalized due to the widespread belief that all of life could be explained purely at the genetic level. In the '60s and '70s, it became clear that molecular biology had to postulate the process McClintock discovered decades before - transposition - in order to make sense of various observed phenomena. This discovery rocketed McClintock back to prominence and made it clear that McClintock was pivotal in helping the world understand that our genetic structures are not static entities, but dynamic systems in a state of equilibrium.

The story, however, does not merely focus on these scientific details. It is largely structured around McClintock's biography, her personality, her eccentricities, and her philosophies of science, creativity and life. McClintock was a notorious recluse and had trouble getting along with others. She often had a chip on her shoulder because of the great amount of sexism she had to struggle with early in her career. But she had an extraordinary ability to concentrate and an intuitive approach to science, which she called "getting a feel for the organism" that she believed led to her discoveries. McClintock believed that science does not merely proceed according to explicit, rational argumentation but includes an intuitive, subconscious element, an element she tapped into and many others have missed. The author is fascinated by this approach and the personality that embodied it and thus it becomes the focus of the book.

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This section contains 484 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Purchase our A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock Study Guide
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A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock from BookRags and Gale's For Students Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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