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Staffan Müller-Wille

University Lecturer in History of Life, Human and Earth Sciences

I was trained in the sciences (Geology/Palaeontology) and moved into the History and Philosophy of Science with my PhD (University of Bielefeld, 1997). From 1998 to 2000 I worked as a curator at the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden and then joined the Max Planck Institute of History of Science in Berlin (Dept. Rheinberger). From 2004 to 2019, I taught at the University of Exeter and co-directed Egenis - The Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences. I also hold an Honorary Chair in the Institute for Medical History and Science Studies at the University of Lübeck.

Research interests

I approach questions of historical epistemology – how knowledge is attained and how it changes over time – through detailed case studies covering the history of the life and the human sciences since the early modern period. I am particularly interested in the role of classification in the generation of knowledge. My work is structured by three research strands:

1. Natural History

Naturalists classify, name and describe organisms. I am interested in how these practices facilitate the storage, organisation, and mobilisation of knowledge. From 2009 to 2013, I pursued these questions in a Wellcome Trust funded project by looking at the ways in which the eighteenth-century naturalist Carl Linnaeus processed information about plants and their economic uses on paper (for more details, see the project's website). 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 (MPIWG), I was able to expand this approach to post-Linnaean natural history as a collective endeavour that was deeply intertwined with the social and political history of European colonial expansion and industrialization.

In collaboration with Elena Isayev, I am currently developing a new methodology to address the question of how knowledge in natural history is generated 'in transit' (Secord). Our aim is co-produce an online translation of Linnaeus's Laplandic Journey (1732) with academic and non-academic experts while re-tracking the journey. In 2019, we received a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant to pursue this idea with partners in Northern Scandinavia.

2. 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 that largely treats the history of race as the history of a false idea, I am interested in its pragmatic and political dimensions. In 2011/2012 I pursued this line of research as a senior research fellow in the Max Planck Research Group 'Historicizing Knowledge about Human Biological Diversity in the 20th Century' in Berlin, and resumed it in 2017 as fellow of the research group 'Kinship and Politics' at the Centre for Interdiscipilinary Research, Bielefeld.

I am currently pursuing research in this area in the context of a Swiss National Foundation Synergeia Grant. 'In the Shadow of the Tree: The Diagrammatics of Relatedness as Scientific, Scholarly, and Popular Practice' is an interdisciplinary collaboration of four research groups investigating the bewildering variety of diagrams that have been used to conceptualize, determine, and produce relatedness in Western Europe and in spaces of European expansion since the Late Medieval Period. A three-month fellowship at the end of 2019 with the German Science Foundation's Institute Center for Advanced Study "Imaginaries of Force" at the University of Hamburg allowed me to explore the history of the concept of "affinity" in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century sciences.

3. Heredity

From 2001 to 2011 I collaborated with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger at the MPIWG and with John Dupré at Egenis – The Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences at the University of Exeter – in a long-term, interdisciplinary project 'A Cultural History of Heredity' (funded by the Karl Schaedler Foundation, British Academy, Wellcome Trust, British Council and German Academic Exchange Service). The main results of this project have been published in three co-edited essay collections and two co-authored books. 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.

Selected publications

For a full CV and publication list, as well as access to preprints of articles and chapters, go to


‘Data, Meta Data and Pattern Data: How Franz Boas Mobilized Anthropometric Data, 1890 and Beyond’. In Data Journeys in the Sciences, edited by Sabina Leonelli and Niccolò Tempini (Cham: Springer, 2020), pp. 265–83, Open Access.
'"Jederzeit zu Diensten": Karl Ludwig Willdenows und Carl Sigismund Kunths Beiträge zur Pflanzengeographie Alexander von Humboldts', co-authored with Katrin Böhme, in edition humboldt digital, edited by Ottmar Ette and Ulrich Päßler, berlin: Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Open Access.


The Gene in the Postgenomic Era, co-authored with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

A Cultural History of Heredity, co-authored with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Carl Linnaeus. Musa Cliffortiana. Clifford's Banana Plant, with an introduction by Staffan Müller-Wille, translated by Stephen Freer (Vienna: International Association for Plant Taxonomy, 2007).

Edited books

Handbuch Wissenschaftsgeschichte, co-edited with Marianne Sommer and Carsten Reinhardt (Stuttgart: Metzler Verlag, 2017).

Heredity Explored: Between Public Domain and Experimental Science, 1850-1930, co-edited with Christina Brandt (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

Human Heredity in the Twentieth Century, co-edited with Bernd Gausemeier and Edmund Ramsden (London: Pickering and Chatto).

Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology, Politics, and Culture 1500-1870, co-edited with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

Journal articles

'Making and Unmaking Populations', Historical Studies of Natural Sciences, vol. 48 (2018), pp. 604–615.

'Names and Numbers: "Data" in Classical Natural History, 1758–1859', Osiris, vol. 32 (2017), pp. 109–128.

'Carl Linnaeus's Botanical Paper Slips (1767–1773)', co-authored with Isabelle Charmantier, Intellectual History Review, vol. 24 (2014), pp. 215–238.

'Race and History: Comments from an Epistemological Point of View', Science, Technology and Human Values, vol. 39 (2014), pp. 597–606.

'Lists as Research Technologies', co-authored with Isabelle Charmantier, Isis, vol. 103 (2012), pp. 743–752.

'Natural History and Information Overload: The Case of Linnaeus', co-authored with Isabelle Charmantier, Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, vol. 43 (2012), pp. 4–15.

Book chapters

'Linnaeus and the Love Lives of Plants', in Reproduction: From Antiquity to the Present Day, edited by N. Hopwood, R. Flemming and L. Kassell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 305–318.

'Linnaean Paper Tools', in New Cultures of Natural History, edited by H. A. Curry, N. Jardine, J. Secord, E. C. Spary (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2018), pp. 205–220.

'Gregor Mendel and the History of Heredity', in The Historiography of Biology, edited by M. R. Dietrich, M. Borello and O. Harman (New York: Springer, 2018).

'Linnaeus and the Four Corners of the World', in The Cultural Politics of Blood, 1500-1900, edited by K. Coles, R. Bauer, Z. Nunes and C. Peterson (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), pp. 191–209.

'Reproducing Difference: Race and Heredity from a Longue Durée Perspective', in Race, Gender and Reproduction: Philosophy and the Early Life Sciences in Context, edited by S. Lettow (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), pp. 217–235.


'Gregor Mendel. Experiments on Plant Hybrids. A New Translation with Commentary', British Society for the History of Science, BSHS Translations Series (with Kersten Hall).


'Mendel's Trick', Phil Sansom, Podcast, The Naked Scientists, 14 August 2019.

'Carl Linnaeus: Naming Nature', with Sandra Knapp and Lisbet Rausing, hosted by Quentin Cooper, The Forum, BBC World Service, 8 July 2017.

'How the Index Card Cataloged the World', by Daniela Blei, The Atlantic, 1 December 2017.

'A Botanist in Swedish Lapland', by James Prosek, New York Times, 16 May 2017.

Staffan Müller-Wille