Genetic “information” or the indomitability of a persisting scientific metaphor

Poiesis and Praxis 5 (3-4):193-209 (2008)
Abstract
In the history of genetics, the information-theoretical description of the gene, beginning in the early 1960s, had a significant effect on the concept of the gene. Information is a highly complex metaphor which is applicable in view of the description of substances, processes, and spatio-temporal organisation. Thus, information can be understood as a functional particle of many different language games (some of them belonging to subdisciplines of genetics, as the biochemical language game, some of them belonging to linguistics and informatics). It is this wide covering of different language games that justifies the common description of genes x, y, z as containing information for the phenotypic traits X, Y, Z (or the genome as storage for the information of a whole organism). However, if information is taken as the explanans and phenotypic traits or organisms as the explananda, then a description of the explanandum is of prior importance before the explanans can be characterised. This way of thinking could be useful for future discussions on the strikingly dominant information -metaphor, and the different gene concepts as well. The article illustrates this in two steps. First, a condensed overview on the history of genetics is given, which can be divided into three parts: (1) genetics without genes, (2) genetics with genes, but without information, (3) genetics with genes and information. It is assumed that this provides not only some historical knowledge about the origin of genetics and the introduction of technical terms, but offers at least preliminary insight into the methodological structure of genetic descriptions. In a second step, we redraw Spemann’s disturbation experiments to discuss our thesis that genetic information is not a natural entity, but part of a causality-language game which is secondarily added to the descriptions of interventionalistic practices, viz. experimental approaches
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Peter Godfrey-Smith (2007). Information in Biology. In David L. Hull & Michael Ruse (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology. Cambridge University Press. 103--119.
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