Genetics, Reductionism and Autopoiesis

Abstract

There are many ways to describe and explain living processes; of these reductionism is one of the most powerful. Reductionism as a method of experimentation yields valuable insights but fails as a universalising philosophy. Genetic reductionism begins with the idea of ‘hidden determinants’ of phenotypes, but there is no direct gene–phenotype link and the very concept of ‘a gene’ is problematic. Molecular epigentics has revealed the complexities of gene expression during development. However, for evoutionary biologists genes are often no more than formal accounting units, rather than deoxyribonucleic acid sequences. Autopoiesis, the process by which an organism constructs itself out of the raw material of genes and environment, is a preferred concept to arbitrary nature/nurture partitioning. Yet there are strong ideological pressures toward adopting naïve genetic determinist metaphors.

Key Concepts:

  • Biologists ask many different questions of living phenomena, and the types of answer they seek depends on the purposes for which the question is asked.

  • Reductionist methods are very productive but reductionism as philosophy can be misleading.

  • The historical development of science has given primacy to reductionist explanations.

  • The concept of ‘a gene’ has changed over time and is now dissolved into variously edited DNA sequences.

  • There is no one‐to‐one correlation between gene and phenotype.

  • Epigenetics studies the ways in which cells regulate gene expression during development.

  • Living organisms are not passive expressions of gene activity but construct themselves using the raw materials of their DNA and the environment during development – this is autopoiesis.

  • Genetic determinism has become a fashionable ideology in response to the growth in genetic knowledge and the multiple crises of our present society.

Keywords: autopoiesis; genetic determinism; complex phenotypes; descriptions versus explanations

References

Bateson P and Gluckman P (2011) Plasticity, Robustness, Development and Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carey N (2011) The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance. London: Icon Books.

Cattaneo E, Rigamonti D, Goffredo D et al. (2001) Loss of normal huntingtin function: new developments in Huntington's disease research. Trends in Neuroscience 24: 182–188.

Coen E (1999) The Art of the Genes: How Organisms Make Themselves. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Collins FS (2009) The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalised Medicine. Harper: New York.

Dawkins R (1982) The Extended Phenotype. London, UK: WH Freeman & Co.

Jablonka E and Lamb M (2005) Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kevles DJ and Hood L (eds) (1990) The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lewontin RC (1993) The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Oyama S, Griffiths P and Gray RD (eds) (2001) Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Robert JS (2004) Embryology, Epigenesis and Evolution: Taking Development Seriously. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rose H and Rose S (eds) (2000) Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology. London, UK: Jonathan Cape.

Rose S (1998) Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Singh RS, Krimbas CB, Paul DB and Beatty J (2001) Thinking about Evolution, Vol. II: Historical, Philosophical and Political Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Varela FJ, Maturana HR and Uribe R (1974) Autopoiesis: the organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. Biosystems 5: 187–196.

Further Reading

Carroll S (2006) Endless Forms Most Beautiful. London: Weidenfeld.

Kay LE (2000) Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Keller EF (2000) The Century of the Gene (1998). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lander ES (2010) Initial impact of the sequencing of the human genome. Nature 470: 187–203.

Maturana HR and Varela FJ (1998) The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Noble D (2006) The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oyama S (1985) The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rose H and Rose S (in press) Genes, Cells, Brains, The Promethean Promises of the New Biosciences. London: Verso.

Venter JC (2008) A Life Decoded: My Genome, My Life. Harmondworth: Penguin.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Rose, Steven PR(Apr 2012) Genetics, Reductionism and Autopoiesis. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005895.pub2]