The Epistemology of Development, Evolution, and Genetics

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The essays in this collection examine developments in three fundamental biological disciplines--embryology, evolutionary biology, and genetics--in conflict with each other for much of the twentieth century. They consider key methodological problems and the difficulty of overcoming them. Richard Burian interweaves historical appreciation of the settings within which scientists work, substantial knowledge of the biological problems at stake and the methodological and philosophical issues faced in integrating biological knowledge drawn from disparate sources.
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From the Publisher
"for those willing to invest some time, the rewards of this volume are considerable: Burian presents a nuanced account of a number of important developments in 20th century biology." - Todd Grantham, College of Charleston
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Meet the Author

Richard M. Burian is Professor of Philosophy and Science Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
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Cambridge University Press
0521836751 - The Epistemology of Development, Evolution, and Genetics - Selected Essays - by Richard M. Burian


General Introduction

Unlike many natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, whose work bridged what we now call science and philosophy, most twentieth-century philosophers of science did not undertake serious work in what we would now call science. Often enough, they wrote in reaction to earlier writings of scientists and philosophers of science, drawing on general background knowledge. Although the theories and analyses they produced were often fascinating, this narrow way of working put them at risk of making poor contact with the phenomena of concern to scientists. Some philosophical projects fell victim to this risk, including some attempts to construct general theories of scientific method, to develop criteria for distinguishing living from nonliving entities, and to specify the structure of major biological theories. Often enough, there turned out to be more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in our philosophies (Shakespeare, Hamlet, I. v). Philosophy, including philosophy of science, should begin with wonder at the phenomena that require understanding.

The development of the philosophy of biology in the last thirty years or so has been salutary in this regard as it has become ever more involved with biological phenomena. Like many contemporary philosophers of biology, I maintain that the phenomena of biology, and its history, are more far more complex - and confusing - than traditional philosophers imagined. Thus, a central theme of the essays that follow is that philosophy of biology must be learned, taught, and thought about by working intensely with "real biology" and serious history of "real biology."

There is, however, a dialectically counterpoised point. The phenomena that biologists study are extremely complex. Valuable insights about complex systems can be gained by working with what scientific modelers sometimes call "toy models." Because philosophers often work with conceptual models and have developed critical tools for this purpose, their training helps them raise well-thought-out questions about the use of models in biology and about how well those models bear on biological knowledge claims. In short, philosophers who are well informed about biology can hope to work closely with biologists in dealing with the various complexities that infect biological work. Philosophical models and the tools of philosophical criticism can help in "locating" problems within larger intellectual contexts, detecting hidden presuppositions and categorizing the advantages or disadvantages of various instruments or model organisms in pursuing certain aims or particular problems. Philosophers can help dissect problems so that they can be rethought in new terms, and they can analyze various ways in which complex units might act as causally integrated wholes. In short, although history and philosophy of biology cannot be done without close contact with biology, historians and philosophers who pay close attention to biology can (at least sometimes) shed light not only on the history and development of biology but also on useful ways of coping with biological problems.

This book is organized in four parts and brings together eleven interrelated essays, written during the last two decades. As such, it does not put forward a neatly unified point of view for it reflects some of the differences of viewpoint among biological disciplines and some of the major developments in biology, which has undergone enormous changes in the last two decades. Nonetheless, the volume is surprisingly unified. It builds on my enduring interest in three related topics: the historical development of work in evolution, genetics, and development; the epistemological issues raised by the interactions among these (and other) disciplines; and the difficulty in achieving conceptual unification of the accounts of the phenomena studied in these biological domains and in biologists' accounts of organisms more generally. It builds to a climax in the concluding chapter, which examines aspects of the ongoing reconception of the ways in which animals are put together thanks to the new integration of development, evolution, and genetics now under way in evolutionary developmental biology.

Part Ⅰ contains two chapters about general methodological issues: the use of "model organisms" (a term of art of the late twentieth century) in biology and the methodological importance (and difficulty) of "interdisciplinary unification" within biology. Both chapters were written for symposia and address the papers presented at those symposia, but their central arguments can be easily understood without examining the papers in question. These two chapters help set up one of the most fascinating dialectics in biology: the dialectic between the particularity of findings and contingency of organismal traits (which are both reasons for worrying about the feasibility of unification in biology) and the importance of the search for general unification within biology. For those with philosophical interests, one of the main thrusts of this book is that whatever we make of the degree of unification achieved in biology, it is not achieved by establishing a set of general biological laws under which explanations can be subsumed. Organisms embed too much history within them (not only their evolutionary histories but also their individual ontogenies!) for them to fall under laws modeled on those of physics. This illustrates one of the continuing themes of the book, introduced in Part Ⅰ.

The other three parts of the book focus on evolution, genetics, and development, paying particular attention to the interactions among these disciplines. Because each section has its own introduction, it is not necessary to elaborate upon them here.

Most of the chapters were written for specific occasions. The thematic unity of the book rests, in part, on resistance to excessive reductionism and on a commitment to what might be called "contextualism" - that is, to the importance of understanding the multiple contexts within which knowledge claims, including those of biology, are put forward and the bearing of those contexts on the interpretation of the claims put forward by biologists. Accordingly, most chapters pay close attention to aspects of the historical settings of the biological problems they examine. I seek to help the reader understand how the available biological knowledge and instruments of research yielded challenges to the then-prevalent conceptual tools and theories of the biologists and how, if at all, such difficulties were - or might have been - resolved in context. By returning repeatedly to the interactions among biological disciplines and to the available investigative tools, I reinforce the importance of issues raised by divergences among disciplines. I also locate some reasons for the failure of reductionist programs to provide satisfactory explanations of biological findings by restricting attention to a single level or biological discipline. Throughout the book, I maintain that biology is built on cross-disciplinary interactions that cover micro- to macro evolution and molecules to whole organisms - not just because of the organization of the disciplines themselves but also because organisms, which are thoroughly historical entities, are built via interactions across ontological levels, with both upward and downward causation.

It is in good part thanks to the influence of Marjorie Grene that I have come to recognize the multilayered and multileveled complexity of biological phenomena and the sciences that deal with them and the importance of placing problems - and scientific work - in a proper historical context. If these underlying attitudes are correct, we will not understand the ongoing transformations of biology until we appreciate both what issues were at stake at particular junctures and how difficult it is to match up the concepts employed by scientists working in different disciplines or in different temporal and social settings.1 Thus, among the commitments that I hope the reader will take away from this book are the following:

  • To understand scientific work properly, one must locate it in its proper intellectual, scientific, and social contexts.
  • No single strategy can adequately describe - or prescribe - sound scientific method.
  • Reductionism (itself multifaceted and variable in content and style) is one of the most productive organizing (or heuristic) principles for research in biology.
  • But, the heuristic power of reductionism often leads scientists to miss important features of the context and organization of biological entities.
  • Accordingly, neither the ontology of living beings nor the epistemological difficulties raised by the scientific study of organisms are revealed by focusing exclusively on reductionist strategies in biology or the progress achieved by use of those strategies.
  • The clash of disciplinary insights - which include commitments to particular instruments and methods, not just commitments to theoretical positions - is often a key factor in major advances in biology.
  • For this reason, cooperative and competitive investigations across disciplines are often essential for the solution of biological problems.
  • Correspondingly, understanding of investigations that cross disciplinary boundaries is crucial for understanding how many biological problems are solved.
  • The tools of cooperative investigation include the more-or-less philosophical tools involved in reconciling conceptual conflicts - reconciliation accomplished in part by conceptual analysis, in part by empirical and experimental research.

The chapters of this book, written for diverse audiences, highlight the importance of diverse perspectives and bring to bear insights drawn from different sources. The introductions to the four sections help set the chapters into context and provide some guidance about background presuppositions. Accordingly, gentle reader, I hope that you will forgive occasional small overlaps between the chapters and find them instructive rather than tedious. And I hope that you will find and correct the errors and oversights that, no doubt, abound in this book.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1. General introduction; Part I. Methodological Issues: 2. How the choice of experimental organism matters; 3. Unification and coherence as methodological objectives in the biological sciences; Part II. Evolution: 4. 'Adaptation'; 5. The influence of the evolutionary paradigm; 6. 'Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution' (Theodosius Dobzhansky); Part III. Genetics and Molecular Biology: 7. On conceptual change in biology; 8. Technique, task definition, and the transition from genetics to molecular genetics; 9. Too many kinds of genes; Part IV. Development: 10. Lillie's paradox - or, some hazards of cellular geography; 11. On conflicts between genetic and developmental viewpoints; 12. Reconceiving animals and their evolution.
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