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Out of date: genetics, history and the British novel of the 1990s

Riley, Natalie

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This article examines the representation of human genomics in the British historical novel of the 1990s. A form which meditates on the past and its relationship to the present, the historical novel readily lends itself to the exploration of genealogy, heredity and inheritance. Forwarding an understanding of human history, and particularly of family history, as a direct and causal function of the genes, the neo-Darwinian explanation of the genome popular in the 1990s similarly advanced its own teleological relationship between past and present. Reading Jenny Diski’s Monkey’s Uncle (1994), A S Byatt’s Babel Tower (1996) and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), this essay argues that the historical novel provides a unique form with which to critique the deterministic view of heredity promoted by neo-Darwinism. Focusing on moments of textual anachronism, asynchronicity and repetition in these family sagas, it shows how—at its most transgressive—the historical novel imagines temporal disruptions that bring the present into contact with the past in ways that defamiliarise conventions of linearity, order and progress. Refusing the idea of human history as a single, legible line that underpins neo-Darwinian ideas of genetic inheritance, Diski, Byatt and Smith’s novels are able to interrogate both the temporal logics and cultural capital of 1990s genetic science. While the decade was shaped and defined by popular science speculation and large-scale genetic research projects, such as the Human Genome Project (1990–2003), the novels addressed in this essay ultimately suggest the lively and seductive genocentrism of the 1990s to be inadequate to the task of explaining the complexity and meaning of the lived genome. As Diski, Byatt and Smith’s novels anticipate, the question of the uses, meanings and value of the human genome sequence continue to be of relevance within our current, postgenomic era.


Riley, N. (2021). Out of date: genetics, history and the British novel of the 1990s. Medical Humanities, 47(2),

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Nov 13, 2021
Online Publication Date May 10, 2021
Publication Date 2021
Deposit Date Sep 21, 2021
Publicly Available Date Sep 21, 2021
Journal Medical humanities.
Print ISSN 1468-215X
Electronic ISSN 1473-4265
Publisher BMJ Publishing Group
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 47
Issue 2


Published Journal Article (277 Kb)

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Copyright Statement
© Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2021. Re-use permitted under CC BY. Published by BMJ.<br /> This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See:

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