What Genes Can't Do: Prolegomena to a Post Modern-Synthesis Philosophy

Dissertation, Northwestern University (1998)

Lenny Moss
University of Exeter
The concept of the gene has been the central organizing theme of 20th century biology. Biology has become increasingly influential both for philosophers seeking a naturalized basis for epistemology, ethics, and the understanding of the mind, as well as for the human sciences generally. The central task of this work is to get the story right about genes and in so doing provide a critical and enabling resourse for use in the further pursuit of human self-understanding. ;The work begins with a wide-ranging historical reconstruction and conceptual analysis of the meaning of "the gene" that results in defining and distinguishing two different "genes". Each of these can be seen as an heir to one of the two major historical trends in explaining the source of biological order---preformationism and epigenesis. The preformationist gene predicts phenotypes but only on an instrumental basis where immediate medical and/or economic benefits can be had. The gene of epigenesis , by contrast, is a developmental resource that provides templates for RNA and protein synthesis but has in itself no determinate relationship to organismal phenotypes. The seemingly prevalent idea that genes constitute information for traits is based, I argue, upon an unwarranted conflation of these two senses which is in effect held together by rhetorical glue. Beyond this historical, conceptual, and rhetorical inquiry the bulk of the dissertation then concerns itself with an empirically up-to-date analysis of the cell and molecular basis of biological order and of the pathological loss of same. In each of these chapters I structure my analysis with the idea in mind that the "conflated" view can be held empirically accountable. Major touchpoints in this work include the ideas of I. Kant, J. Blumenbach, K. E. von Baer, J. Muller, R. Virchow, W. Johannsen, R. Falk, J. Sapp, E. Schrodinger, M. Delbruick, G. Gamow, R. Doyle, L. Kay, S. Kauffman, E. Jablonka, J. Rothman, K. Yamamoto, P. Rous, H. Temin, J. M. Bishop, H. Harris, E. Stanbridge, D. L. Smithers, B. Vogelstein, E. Farber and H. Rubin
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