"-Barbara Ehrenreich, Mother Jones "This book represents the expression of a particular feminist perspective made all the more compelling by Keller's evident commitment to and understanding of science.
Two decades of critique have sensitized historians and philosophers of science to the inadequacies of conventional dichotomies between theory and practice, thereby prompting the search for new ways of writing about science that are less beholden than the old ways to the epistemological mores of theoretical physics, and more faithful to the actual practices not only of physics but of all the natural sciences. The need for alternative descriptions seems particularly urgent if one is to understand the place of theory (...) (and, in parallel, the role of modeling) in contemporary molecular biology, a science where, until now, no division between theory and experiment has obtained, and where distinctions between representing and intervening, and more generally, between basic and applied science, are daily becoming more blurred. Indeed, the very division between theory and experiment threatens to slight the extensive and sophisticated theoretical analyses (and even modeling) on which experimental work in contemporary molecular biology so often depends. My aim in this paper is to find a way of talking about theoretical practices in biology that is directly rooted in the mix of conceptual and material work that biologists do. As an example of such theoretical practices, I choose for the focus of my analysis the development of a model for gene regulation out of the experimental work of Eric Davidson and his colleagues at Cal Tech. (shrink)
The ways in which the various activities of synthetic biology connect to those of conventional biology display both a multiplicity and variety that reflect the multiplicity and variety of meanings for which the term synthetic biology has been invoked, today as in the past. Central to this variety, as well as to the connection itself, is the complex relationship between knowing and making that has prevailed in the life sciences. That relationship is the focus of this article. More specifically, my (...) aim is to explore the different assumptions about how knowing is related to making that have prevailed, implicitly or explicitly in the various activities—now or in the past—subsumed under the name synthetic biology. (shrink)
In this paper, I explore the problematic relation between sex and gender in parallel with the equally problematic relation between nature and science. I also offer a provisional analysis of the political dynamics that work to polarize both kinds of discourse, focusing especially on their intersection (i.e., on discussions of gender and science), and on that group most directly affected by all of the above considerations (i.e., women scientists).
While scientific terms lack the stability of physical objects, they are generally far more stable than the various meanings associated with them. As a consequence, they tend to carry older conceptions alongside those more recently acquired, thereby exerting an effective drag against conceptual change. I illustrate this claim with an analysis of the shifting meanings of the term genome, originally used to refer to a collectivity of genes, but more recently to an organism’s complement of DNA. While genes were originally (...) regarded as effectively autonomous formal agents, and DNA as collections of genes, contemporary research suggests that an organism’s DNA constitutes a far more complex system designed to adapt and respond to the environment in which it finds itself. (shrink)
Over the last couple of decades, a call has begun to resound in a number of distinct fields of inquiry for a reattachment of form to matter, for an understanding of ‘information’ as inherently embodied, or, as Jean-Marie Lehn calls it, for a “science of informed matter.” We hear this call most clearly in chemistry, in cognitive science, in molecular computation, and in robotics—all fields looking to biological processes to ground a new epistemology. The departure from the values of a (...) more traditional epistemological culture can be seen most clearly in changing representations of biological development. Where for many years now, biological discourse has accepted a sharp distinction between information and matter, software and hardware, data and program, encoding and enactment, a new discourse has now begun to emerge in which these distinctions have little meaning. Perhaps ironically, much of this shift depends on drawing inspiration from just those biological processes which the discourse of disembodied information was intended to describe. (shrink)
A substantial literature on risk perception demonstrates the limits of human rationality, especially in the face of catastrophic risks. Human judgment, it seems, is flawed by the tendency to overestimate the magnitude of rare but evocative risks, while underestimating risks associated with commonplace dangers. Such findings are particularly relevant to the problem of crafting responsible public policy in the face of the kinds of threat posed by climate change. If the risk perception of ordinary citizens cannot be trusted, then it (...) would seem logical to base policy decisions on expert judgment. But how rational, how trustworthy, are expert assessments of catastrophic risk? I briefly review the limitations of conventional models of expert risk analysis, especially in dealing with the large uncertainties endemic to the risk of low-probability, high-impact events in the distant future. The challenges such events pose to the underlying assumptions of these analyses are severe enough to question their basic rationality. I argue that a conception of rationality premised on the bounded knowledge of experts and lay citizens alike, based on context-appropriate heuristics, may help us in the search for a more trustworthy basis for decision making. (shrink)
Historically, living was divided from dead, inert matter by its autonomous activity. Today, a number of materials not themselves alive are characterized as having inherent activity, and this activity has become the subject of a hot new field of physics, “Active Matter”, or “Soft matter become alive.” For active matter scientists, the relation of physics to biology is guaranteed in one direction by the assertion that the cell is a material, and hence its study can be considered a branch of (...) material science, and in the other direction, by the claim that the physical dynamics of this material IS what brings the cell to life, and therefore its study is a proper branch of biology. I will examine these claims in relation to the concerns of nineteenth century scientists on the one hand, and on the other, in relation to future prospects of the division between animate and inanimate. -/- . (shrink)
Throughout the history of molecular biology, the primary meaning of biological information has been taken from the image of a word-based linguistic code. I want to argue that the metaphor of such a code does not begin to capture either the variety or the richness of the processes by which nucleotide sequences inform biological processes. Current research demonstrates that nucleotide sequences inform not only development but also heredity and evolution, and they do so in all sorts of ways. Even though (...) they do not exhaust the varieties of biological information employed in these processes, I claim that the power of DNA sequences to inform these processes is richer and perhaps far greater than the conventional understanding of genetic information permits, indeed richer than what any of our images of simple linguistic codes or of senders and receivers permits. Rather than a tape in a Turing machine or a message or signal sent through the generations, DNA is first and foremost a physicochemical structure with a range of potential uses by the physicochemical arsenal of biological cells that is so large as to expose the poverty of our most familiar metaphors. Recognition of this fact leads us to conclude that DNA is both more and less than we thought—more because it carries both symbolic and non-symbolic information and less because accepting that fact undermines its radical distinction from other biological molecules. (shrink)
The acronym Developmental systems theory (DST) has been introduced into the literature on development in at least three different contexts in recent years – twice for DST, and before that, for Dynamical Systems Theory – and in all cases, to designate a new perspective for understanding development. Subtle but significant differences in argument and aims distinguish these uses, and confound the difficulty of saying just what DST is. My aim in this paper is to disambiguate these different terms – both (...) to call attention to the difference of perspectives, and to carve out a conceptual space for the concrete issues at stake. (shrink)
What I suggest we can see in this brief overview of the literature is an extensive interpenetration on both sides of these debates between scientific, political, and social values. Important shifts in political and social values were of course occurring over the same period, some of them in parallel with, and perhaps even contributing to, these transitions I have been speaking of in evolutionary discourse. The developments that I think of as at least suggestive of possible parallels include the progressive (...) encroachment of public values into the private domain of post-World War II American life, the cold war, the rise of consumerism, and the flowering of what Christopher Lasch calls a “narcissistic individualism.”35 In popular language, the 1960s gave birth to the “me” generation. Perhaps the most tantalizing analogue is suggested by Barbara Ehrenreich's argument for the emergence of a new meaning of masculinity — an ideal of masculinity measured not by commitment, responsibility, or success as family provider, but precisely by the strength of a man's autonomy in the private sphere, his resistance to the demands of a hampering female.36 It is tempting to speculate about possible connections between changes in scientific discourse and developments in the social and political spheres, but such connections, however suggestive, would clearly have to be demonstrated.For now, however, I want to focus on another kind of change —a transformation not so much in the social or political sphere as in the scientific sphere. I make this turn, or return, in support of a more complex account of scientific change that incorporates reverberations within the scientific communty along with social and political changes.In the 1960s, all of biology was undergoing a major transformation in direct response to the dramatic successes of molecular biology. These successes seemed to completely vindicate the values on which the molecular revolution was premised — namely, simplicity and mechanism. Following the victory of Watson and Crick, and of others after them, the fever of that endeavor swept through biology leaving in its wake a new standard of science, and of scientific discourse — one predicated on clarity, simplicity, and analyzability; on the definition of legitimate questions as those capable of clear and unambiguous answers. Every biological discipline felt it — even evolutionary biology, which in some respects was at the furthest pole. Perhaps precisely because it seemed conceptually so remote, evolutionary biology may have felt it most of all. Lewontin inadvertently provides us with some direct support for this view. Indeed, he begins his introduction to Population Biology and Evolution with the following remarks: The twenty years since World War II have seen a vindication in biology of our faith in the Cartesian method as a way of doing science. Some of the most fundamental and interesting problems of biology have been solved or are very nearly solved by an analytic technique that is now loosely called “molecular biology.” But it is not specifically the “molecular” aspect of biology of the last twenty years that has led to its success. It is, rather, the analytic aspect, the belief that by breaking systems down into their component parts, by simplifying them or using simpler organisms, one can learn about more complex systems. As it happens, the problems that were attacked and are being attacked by this method lead to answers in terms of molecules and cell organelles.... There is a host of problems in biology, however, that has been much neglected in these twenty exciting years, because the answers to them cannot be meaningfully framed in molecular and cellular terms.37Lewontin is referring, of course, to problems in evolution. The remainder of his remarks is devoted to an argument for the applicability of the method, if not the content, of molecular biology to these problems. He writes, “It is not the case that molecular biology is Cartesian and analytic while population biology is holistic. Population biology is properly analytic and operates, within the framework of its own problems, by the process of simplification, analysis, and resynthesis.”38 With these remarks, he leads into the criticism of the “holists” who have “held up progress.”This new ethic of simplicity, clarity, and mechanism — embodying the very virtues lauded by Williams — was explicitly carried into evolutionary biology in the name of scientific progress. As it happened, the values implied also fit conveniently well with other values — each set of values providing crucial support for the other.However substantive the scientific gains may have been in some respects, the net effect of this ethic has also been a systematic “perceptual bias” — a bias with profound practical consequences for the entire program of methodological individualism in evolutionary biology, if not elsewhere as well. It may well be that the whole is equivalent to the reconstituted aggregate of its parts, if, in the process of aggregation or summation, all possible interactions among the parts are included. But if certain kinds of interactions are systematically excluded, our confidence in that program necessarily founders. My claim here is that such systematic exclusion does occur, and that it occurs on a number of different levels. To briefly review the interlocking kinds of “bias” that I see occurring in practice, I suggest the following schematic listing:On the most general level: The ethic of simplicity — the privileging of certain values, even certain methodologies, as having an a priori superior claim to scientific credibility.Only slightly less general, and crucially related, is the equation of “scientific” with “tractible”: Given the techniques of analysis available, the equation of science with what we can do inevitably leads to a systematic technical bias favoring simplicity. That is, because we don't know how to model complex dynamics, nonlinear interactions are systematically biased against because of the limitations of our technical know-how. The consequences of this equation of the scientific with the tractible are greatly compounded by the additional equation between what we can do and what is — that is, by our temptation to confuse tractibility with reality.Finally, and also closely related, a further kind of elision occurs even within the confines of tractibility. This kind of elision — taking the form almost of inferring tractibility from one's prior assumptions of what is real — is exemplified by the history of a mathematical ecology of mutualism. Even when mutualism can be introduced into the same technical machinery, it is still not pursued. The basic assumption is that competition is what is real, not because it is easier to model, but because it is what we expect. When the actual difficulties of modeling competition are then in turn suppressed, as in the Robert May story, what we have, given the temptation to equate the tractible with the real, is the possibility of a truly self-fulfilling prophecy. (shrink)
In much of the discourse of evolutionary theory, reproduction is treated as an autonomous function of the individual organism — even in discussions of sexually reproducing organisms. In this paper, I examine some of the functions and consequences of such manifestly peculiar language. In particular, I suggest that it provides crucial support for the central project of evolutionary theory — namely that of locating causal efficacy in intrinsic properties of the individual organism. Furthermore, I argue that the language of individual (...) reproduction is maintained by certain methodological conventions that both obscure many of the problems it generates and serve to actively impede attempts to redress those difficulties that can be identified. Finally, I suggest that inclusion of the complexities introduced by sexual reproduction — in both language and methodology — may radically undermine the individualist focus of evolutionary theory. (shrink)
I welcome the opportunity to respond to Kelly Oliver's critique of my paper published earlier in this journal for at least three reasons: out of respect for the tradition of intellectual exchange to which Oliver's invitation tacitly appeals; because the issues are of quite general importance, even far beyond feminist theory; and out of fidelity to the goals of contemporary feminist theory, central to which I take to be the unravelling of classical dichotomies. This commitment inspires me to protest the (...) current tendency among some feminist critics to tacitly reinforce (often under the name of "deconstruction") the very dichotomy between objectivism and relativism which I and others have sought to undermine. Here, as always, the tell-tale marks of such oppositional reconstructions are to be found in the collapse and obliteration of distinctions internal to the categories under questions. (shrink)
I welcome the opportunity to respond to Kelly Oliver's critique of my paper published earlier in this journal for at least three reasons: out of respect for the tradition of intellectual exchange to which Oliver's invitation tacitly appeals; because the issues are of quite general importance, even far beyond feminist theory; and out of fidelity to the goals of contemporary feminist theory, central to which I take to be the unravelling of classical dichotomies. This commitment inspires me to protest the (...) current tendency among some feminist critics to tacitly reinforce the very dichotomy between objectivism and relativism which I and others have sought to undermine. Here, as always, the tell-tale marks of such oppositional reconstructions are to be found in the collapse and obliteration of distinctions internal to the categories under questions. (shrink)
The campaign to discredit predictions of man-made global warming—originally organized by readily identifiable vested interests—has by now recruited a large popular constituency of declared “skeptics” increasingly disposed to “take a stand”: some of them opposed to government regulation in general, some resistant to any claims to intellectual authority (perhaps especially scientific), and some mobilized by a version of the right to individual freedom of opinion. As a result, confidence in the expertise of scientists has reached an all time low: Internet (...) sites, radio talk shows, and television channels preferentially transmit “contrarian” attacks on the credibility of climate scientists. Even our most responsible newspapers and journals, in their very commitment to the traditional ethic of “balance,” sometimes contribute to the widespread misimpression that climate scientists are deeply divided about both the extent of the dangers we face and the relevance of human activity to global warming. Not knowing who or what to believe, the natural response for most people is to do nothing, and the consequence, as Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote last year for the New York Times: “Climate policy is gridlocked, and there’s virtually no chance of a breakthrough” (2010). Meanwhile, as evidence both of the role of human contributions to global warming and the dangers of that warming continues to mount, consensus among climate scientists grows ever stronger, and those of us who attend to that evidence are increasingly alarmed. (shrink)