Standard microbial evolutionary ontology is organized according to a nested hierarchy of entities at various levels of biological organization. It typically detects and defines these entities in relation to the most stable aspects of evolutionary processes, by identifying lineages evolving by a process of vertical inheritance from an ancestral entity. However, recent advances in microbiology indicate that such an ontology has important limitations. The various dynamics detected within microbiological systems reveal that a focus on the most stable entities (or features (...) of entities) over time inevitably underestimates the extent and nature of microbial diversity. These dynamics are not the outcome of the process of vertical descent alone. Other processes, often involving causal interactions between entities from distinct levels of biological organisation, or operating at different time scales, are responsible not only for the destabilisation of pre-existing entities, but also for the emergence and stabilisation of novel entities in the microbial world. In this article we consider microbial entities as more or less stabilised functional wholes, and sketch a network-based ontology that can represent a diverse set of processes including, for example, as well as phylogenetic relations, interactions that stabilise or destabilise the interacting entities, spatial relations, ecological connections, and genetic exchanges. We use this pluralistic framework for evaluating (i) the existing ontological assumptions in evolution (e.g. whether currently recognized entities are adequate for understanding the causes of change and stabilisation in the microbial world), and (ii) for identifying hidden ontological kinds, essentially invisible from within a more limited perspective. We propose to recognize additional classes of entities that provide new insights into the structure of the microbial world, namely “processually equivalent” entities, “processually versatile” entities, and “stabilized” entities. (shrink)
This paper considers the applicability of standard accounts of causation to living systems. In particular it examines critically the increasing tendency to equate causal explanation with the identification of a mechanism. A range of differences between living systems and paradigm mechanisms are identified and discussed. While in principle it might be possible to accommodate an account of mechanism to these features, the attempt to do so risks reducing the idea of a mechanism to vacuity. It is proposed that the solution (...) to this problem requires the development of a philosophical account of process adequate to apply to living systems. (shrink)
A fine book, but who’s it for? Content Type Journal Article Pages 1-3 DOI 10.1007/s11016-011-9582-9 Authors John Dupré, ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis), University of Exeter, Byrne House, St. German’s Road, Exeter, EX4 4PJ UK Journal Metascience Online ISSN 1467-9981 Print ISSN 0815-0796.
John Dupré explores recent revolutionary developments in biology and considers their relevance for our understanding of human nature and human society. Epigenetics and related areas of molecular biology have eroded the exceptional status of the gene and presented the genome as fully interactive with the rest of the cell. Developmental systems theory provides a space for a vision of evolution that takes full account of the fundamental importance of developmental processes. Dupré shows the importance of microbiology for a proper understanding (...) of the living world, and reveals how it subverts such basic biological assumptions as the organisation of biological kinds on a branching tree of life, and the simple traditional conception of the biological organism. -/- These topics are considered in the context of a view of science as realistically grounded in the natural order, but at the same time as pluralistic and inextricably integrated within a social and normative context. The volume includes a section that recapitulates and expands some of the author's general views on science; a section addressing a range of topics in biology, including the significance of genomics, the nature of the organism and the current status of evolutionary theory; and a section exploring some implications of contemporary biology for humans, for example on the reality or unreality of human races, and the plasticity of human nature. (shrink)
This paper will begin with some very broad and general considerations about the kind of biological entities we are. This exercise is motivated by the belief that the view of what we—multicellular eukaryotic organisms—are that is widely assumed by biologists, medical scientists and the general public, is an extremely limited one. It cannot be assumed a priori that a more sophisticated view will make a major difference to the science or practice of medicine, and there are areas of medicine to (...) which it is probably largely irrelevant. However, in this case there are important implications for medicine, or so I shall argue. In particular, it enables us to appreciate fully the potential medical significance of some of the most exciting contemporary advances in general biology, in such fields as epigenetics, metagenomics, and systems biology; and part of this significance is that these advances have raised serious doubts about how we should understand the biological individuals that medicine is generally assumed to aim to treat. (shrink)
The ‘Tree of Life’ is intended to represent the pattern of evolutionary processes that result in bifurcating species lineages. Often justified in reference to Darwin’s discussions of trees, the Tree of Life has run up against numerous challenges especially in regard to prokaryote evolution. This special issue examines scientific, historical and philosophical aspects of debates about the Tree of Life, with the aim of turning these criticisms towards a reconstruction of prokaryote phylogeny and even some aspects of the standard evolutionary (...) understanding of eukaryotes. These discussions have arisen out of a multidisciplinary collaboration of people with an interest in the Tree of Life, and we suggest that this sort of focused engagement enables a practical understanding of the relationships between biology, philosophy and history. (shrink)
Although molecular biology has meant different things at different times, the term is often associated with a tendency to view cellular causation as conforming to simple linear schemas in which macro-scale effects are specified by micro-scale structures. The early achievements of molecular biologists were important for the formation of such an outlook, one to which the discovery of recombinant DNA techniques, and a number of other findings, gave new life even after the complexity of genotype–phenotype relations had become apparent. Against this (...) background we outline how a range of scientific developments and conceptual considerations can be regarded as enabling and perhaps necessitating contemporary systems approaches. We suggest that philosophical ideas have a valuable part to play in making sense of complex scientific and disciplinary issues. (shrink)
It has long been thought that science is our best hope for realizing objective knowledge, but that, to deliver on this promise, it must be value free. Things are not so simple, however, as recent work in science studies makes clear. The contributors to this volume investigate where and how values are involved in science, and examine the implications of this involvement for ideals of objectivity.
Systems biology is the rapidly growing and heavily funded successor science to genomics. Its mission is to integrate extensive bodies of molecular data into a detailed mathematical understanding of all life processes, with an ultimate view to their prediction and control. Despite its high profile and widespread practice, there has so far been almost no bioethical attention paid to systems biology and its potential social consequences. We outline some of systems biology's most important socioethical issues by contrasting the concept of (...) systems as dynamic processes against the common static interpretation of genomes. New issues arise around systems biology's capacities for in silico testing, changing cultural understandings of life, synthetic biology, and commercialization. We advocate an interdisciplinary and interactive approach that integrates social and philosophical analysis and engages closely with the science. Overall, we argue that systems biology socioethics could stimulate new ways of thinking about socioethical studies of life sciences. (shrink)
Philosophers of biology, along with everyone else, generally perceive life to fall into two broad categories, the microbes and macrobes, and then pay most of their attention to the latter. ‘Macrobe’ is the word we propose for larger life forms, and we use it as part of an argument for microbial equality. We suggest that taking more notice of microbes – the dominant life form on the planet, both now and throughout evolutionary history – will transform some of the philosophy (...) of biology’s standard ideas on ontology, evolution, taxonomy and biodiversity. We set out a number of recent developments in microbiology – including biofilm formation, chemotaxis, quorum sensing and gene transfer – that highlight microbial capacities for cooperation and communication and break down conventional thinking that microbes are solely or primarily single-celled organisms. These insights also bring new perspectives to the levels of selection debate, as well as to discussions of the evolution and nature of multicellularity, and to neo-Darwinian understandings of evolutionary mechanisms. We show how these revisions lead to further complications for microbial classification and the philosophies of systematics and biodiversity. Incorporating microbial insights into the philosophy of biology will challenge many of its assumptions, but also give greater scope and depth to its investigations. (shrink)
Understanding how scientific activities use naming stories to achieve disciplinary status is important not only for insight into the past, but for evaluating current claims that new disciplines are emerging. In order to gain a historical understanding of how new disciplines develop in relation to these baptismal narratives, we compare two recently formed disciplines, systems biology and genomics, with two earlier related life sciences, genetics and molecular biology. These four disciplines span the twentieth century, a period in which the processes (...) of disciplinary demarcation fundamentally changed from those characteristic of the nineteenth century. We outline how the establishment of each discipline relies upon an interplay of factors that include paradigmatic achievements, technological innovation, and social formations. Our focus, however, is the baptism stories that give the new discipline a founding narrative and articulate core problems, general approaches and constitutive methods. The highly plastic process of achieving disciplinary identity is further marked by the openness of disciplinary definition, tension between technological possibilities and the ways in which scientific issues are conceived and approached, synthesis of reductive and integrative strategies, and complex social interactions. The importance – albeit highly variable – of naming stories in these four cases indicates the scope for future studies that focus on failed disciplines or competing names. Further attention to disciplinary histories could, we suggest, give us richer insight into scientific development. (shrink)
John Dupré explores the ways in which we categorize animals, including humans, and comes to surprisingly radical conclusions. He opposes the idea that there is only one legitimate way of classifying things in the natural world, the 'scientific' way. The lesson we should learn from Darwin is to reject the idea that each organism has an essence that determines its necessary place in the unique hierarchy of things. Nature is not like that: it is not organized in a single system. (...) There is no universal principle by which organisms can be sorted into species; still less is there any unique way of classifying kinds of humans. We are obliged to accept that different classificatory schemes are valid for different purposes, and therefore to take a pluralistic view of biology and the human sciences. These provocative and readable essays move on to discuss a set of contentious topics relating to human nature. To start with, Dupré argues that the concept of a universal human nature should be rejected. He questions the relevance of evolution to explanation of human behaviour, and casts doubt on the concept of normality in human behaviour. He shows that misunderstanding of biology and evolution has led to widespread misconceptions about human sex and gender - in particular, about sexual behaviour and gender roles. The book concludes with a pair of essays about the differences between humans and animals - which may not be quite so clear-cut as we think. (shrink)
Charles Darwin transformed our understanding of the universe and our place in it with his development of the theory of evolution. 150 years later, we are still puzzling over the implications. John Dupré presents a lucid, witty introduction to evolution and what it means for our view of humanity, the natural world, and religion. He explains the right and the wrong ways to understand evolution: in the latter category fall most of the claims of evolutionary psychology, of which Dupré gives (...) a withering critique. He shows why the theory of evolution is one of the most important scientific ideas of all time, but makes clear that it can't explain everything - contrary to widespread popular belief, it has very little to tell us about the details of human nature and human behaviour, such as language, culture, and sexuality. -/- Darwin's Legacy clears a path through the confusion and controversy surrounding evolution; anyone who is interested in understanding what the theory of evolution can and can't do will find this a compelling and enjoyable introduction. (shrink)
This paper compares human diversity with biological diversity generally. Drawing on the pluralistic perspective on biological species defended in earlier work (2002, chs. 3 and 4), I argue that there are useful parallels to be drawn between human and animal kinds, as there are between their respective sources in cultural evolution and evolution generally. This view is developed in opposition to the insistence by sociobiologists and their successors on minimizing the significance of culture. The paper concludes with a discussion of (...) the relation between cultural difference and individual difference, and the relation of the latter to conceptions of human freedom. (shrink)
: Recent molecular biology has seen the development of genomics as a successor to traditional genetics. This paper offers an overview of the structure, epistemology, and (very briefly) history of contemporary genomics. A particular focus is on the question to what extent the genome contains, or is composed of, anything that corresponds to traditional conceptions of genes. It is concluded that the only interpretation of genes that has much contemporary scientific relevance is what is described as the "developmental defect" gene (...) concept. However, developmental defect genes typically only correspond to general areas of the genome and not to precise chemical structures (nucleotide sequences). The parts of the genome to be identified for an account of the processes of normal development are highly diverse, little correlated with traditional genes, and act in ways that are highly dependent on the cellular and higher level environment. Despite its historical development out of genetics, genomics represents a radically different kind of scientific project. (shrink)
John Dupre warns that our understanding of human nature is being distorted by two faulty and harmful forms of pseudo-scientific thinking. Not just in the academic world but in everyday life, we find one set of experts who seek to explain the ends at which humans aim in terms of evolutionary theory, while the other set uses economic models to give rules of how we act to achieve those ends. Dupre demonstrates that these theorists' explanations do not work and that, (...) if taken seriously, their theories tend to have dangerous social and political consequences. For these reasons, it is important to resist scientism: an exaggerated conception of what science can be expected to do for us. Dupre restores sanity to the study of human nature by pointing the way to a proper understanding of humans in the societies that are our natural and necessary environments. Anyone interested in science and human life will enjoy this book--unless they are its targets. (shrink)
A recent paper by John Watkins argues that the Baldwin effect, a hypothetical evolutionary process by which a culturally evolved behavior might promote the evolution of a genetic basis for that behavior, is inconsistent with evolutionary theory. In this reply, I argue that in case the genetic basis of the behavior in question determines separable constituents of the behavior, Watkins's argument is unsound.