Kant’s epigenesis: specificity and developmental constraints

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 39 (1):3 (2016)
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In this paper, I argue that Kant adopted, throughout his career, a position that is much more akin to classical accounts of epigenesis, although he does reject the more radical forms of epigenesis proposed in his own time, and does make use of preformationist sounding terms. I argue that this is because Kant thinks of what is pre-formed as a species, not an individual or a part of an individual; has no qualm with the idea of a specific, teleological principle or force underlying generation, and conceives of germs and predispositions as specific constraints on such a principle or force. Neither of these conceptions of what is “preformed”, I argue, is in strict opposition to classical epigenesis. I further suggest that Kant’s lingering use of preformationist terminology is due to his belief that this is required to account for the specificity of the specific generative force; his resistance towards the unrestricted plasticity of the generative force in radical epigenesis, which violates species-fixism; and his insistence on the internal, organic basis of developmental plasticity and variation within species. I conclude by suggesting that this terminological and interpretative peculiarity is partly due to a larger shift in the natural philosophical concerns surrounding the debate on epigenesis and preformation. Specifically, it is a sign that the original reasons for resisting epigenesis, namely its use of specific, teleological principles and its commitment to the natural production of biological structure, became less of a concern, whereas unrestricted plasticity and its undermining of fixism became a real issue, thereby also becoming the focal point of the debate.



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Boris Demarest
University of Amsterdam

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