The organism in development

Philosophy of Science 67 (3):321 (2000)
Developmental biology has resurfaced in recent years, often without a clearly central role for the organism. The organism is pulled in divergent directions: on the one hand, there is an important body of work that emphasizes the role of the gene in development, as executing and controlling embryological change; on the other hand, there are more theoretical approaches under which the organism disappears as little more than an instance for testing biological generalizations. I press here for the ineliminability of the organism in developmental biology on explanatory grounds. I examine classical work concerned with growth and development, particularly in Drosophila and C. elegans. Some of this work is suggestive of modular development, and accordingly suggests a level below that of the organism as being explanatory. These are not the only type of case. There are other equally well-established results, which indicate greater integration in the developing organism. Though with a modular organization the organism can be thought of as made up of its constituent traits, and though the explanations of these traits may lie in terms of cells or genes, even with modular development the explanations of "genetic" differences require an appeal to the organism. With non-modular organization the organism has an even more central role. This does not mean that these genetic or cellular contributions are unreal in any way, or that development requires some sort of vitalistic contribution; but the genetic contributions make sense only as constituents of the organism, embedded in a larger organic context
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