Kristine Bonnevie's theories on the genetics of fingerprints, and their application in Germany

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This paper offers a historical reconstruction of the efforts to geneticize fingerprints, focusing on the theories put forward by the Norwegian biologist Kristine Bonnevie. The criminological and colonial roots of the preoccupation with fingerprints led to the creation of huge catalogues of fingerprints, which later became the starting point of Bonnevie's analysis. Building on insights she gained from her studies on the inheritance of human pathologies, Bonnevie insisted that all ten fingers exhibited varying manifestations of a single, underlying genotypic design. In 1923-4, she identified several theoretical genes that presumably constituted this hypothetical genotypic finger; five years later she revised her theory in light of a series of embryological dissections she conducted. Her new theory was adopted by German jurists, doctors and racial-anthropologists who relied on it to determine legal questions of disputed paternity. The extensive application of Bonnevie's genetic theory also exposed its deficiencies, and by the late 1950s her model was abandoned. At the same time, one of the most important genetic variables that Bonnevie discovered (or, invented) entered mainline genetic theory, and is still being used to this very day. The paper examines these developments, highlighting the multiple and complex relations between scientific theory building, practical considerations related to the gathering and processing of data, and social, racial and gender biases that shaped the process of “Mendelization” of finger print patterns.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)162-176
Number of pages15
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science
StatePublished - Apr 2022


  • Eugenics
  • Fingerprints
  • Genetics
  • Germany
  • Heredity
  • Mendelism
  • Nazism
  • Norway


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