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Keller: Landscape of biological thought is being “radically reconfigured”

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Suzan Mazur reports in HuffPost: on Evelyn Fox Keller’s talk on genetics, factual and fictional, at the recent D’Arcy Thompson festival. From her transcript:

Today we are in a new century, one in which the landscape of biological thought is once again being radically reconfigured. With the maturation of molecular biology, the genome has been transformed from the executive director of biological development or as Schrödinger put it—-an architect’s plan and builder’s plan—-to the immensely complex physical-chemical structures that seem to need no new laws of physics only a Herculean effort of sifting through the jungle of physical and chemical interactions responsible for what it can and cannot do.

This explanation is itself largely the result of a turn from answering questions about nucleotide sequences calling for amino acids to the much harder questions about how particular proteins are produced in the quantities at the times and in the places in which they are needed for the normal functioning of the cell. More.

The selfish gene was recently spotted begging in front of a liquor store in Medicine Hat… We figure, whatever happens, he’s in for long-term unemployment, otherwise retraining.

Essentially, Dennett and Dawkins are just pop culture figures now.That’s the scandal of serious media continually fronting their views as if they matter, apart from name recognition.

Royal Society Suzan Mazur is author of Public Evolution Summit, an account of the ferment within evolutionary biology.

See also: At public evolution meeting in Scotland, crowd told: “gene” is not an accurate term

and

Is Nature now giving space to structuralism? *Note: Denton, as his book Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis reveals, is a structuralist. He thinks that many puzzles of evolution will turn out to relate to as yet unidentified laws of physics and chemistry.

5 Replies to “Keller: Landscape of biological thought is being “radically reconfigured”

  1. 1
    PaV says:

    In a similar vein, it should also be acknowledged, that the separation of the animate from the inanimate was also of long standing. Thompson’s complaint about the decision and reluctance of zoologists to compare the living with the dead, the reluctance to abandon the expectation of something more were well mounted and in evidence long before the advent of genetics.

    But I would disagree that the genetics itself ultimately represented as a reduction of science, in fact, provided support for such reluctance. I would even argue that it offered a kind of fulfillment of the expectation of something more. Now, to be sure, geneticists were not vitalists. They had no use for vital force. But they had a seductive alternative. And that alternative was the gene.

    I submit that the concept of the gene provided the something more, the crucial element that set biological organisms apart, and that seemed inevitably, perhaps necessarily, to be distinct from physicalist accounts. The gene was immortal. And it seemed all but totally resistant to the effects of physical force. Most importantly, it seemed to have what Newton referred to as an occult specific quality by which it acts and produces. . . its manifest effects.

    If genes act, how do they act? If sequences of DNA inform, how and what is it that they inform? With this shift that focuses attention on the complex relations between genotype and phenotype, we can finally return to D’Arcy Thompson. . . .

    ‘no organic forms,’ he wrote, ‘exist save as such conform with physical and mathematical laws.’

    But what are these laws? How DNA is read for proteins depends on its conformation and its physical structure, its conformation in three-dimensional space. Its morphology differs from that of the forms which D’Arcy focused in at least two ways: first, it is highly dynamic, and second, the factors involved operate in a molecular rather than in a macro-scale.

    Finally, Keller sees the biological picture as one of circular causality. She refers to CNRS research director Annick Lesne‘s inspiring work on the subject. Keller concludes that she’s not ready to dispense with genetic explanations but her perspective is multiscale, where D’Arcy Thompson’s physical approach to biology offers an increasingly relevant alternative to “simplistic reductionism.”

    Because of the elliptic nature of the HuffPo article, all that’s written remains tantalizing, but not fully coherent.

    It seems Keller is saying that biologists “reduced” the ‘vitality’ of life down to the “gene,” and, so doing, left all kinds of unanswered questions. Now, with the rise of robust molecular biology, deeper questions can be asked, and hopefully answered, so that today . . .

    ” . . . morphology differs from that of the forms which D’Arcy focused in at least two ways: first, it is highly dynamic, and second, the factors involved operate in a molecular rather than in a macro-scale.”

    Because of these differences, Keller’s “perspective is multiscale, where D’Arcy Thompson’s physical approach to biology offers an increasingly relevant alternative to ‘simplistic reductionism’”—that is, the “simplistic reductionism” of vitalism to no more than the existence of the “gene.”

    But my question is this: do we simply “reduce” biology to the “laws of physics”? Is that satisfactory? IOW, when—and should—this happen, will we all say: “Oh yes, now my curiosity about life is satisfied!”?

  2. 2
    Origenes says:

    PaV, I suppose that their curiosity will be satisfied when they have sifted through the whole web of “influencers” in the cell and finally hit on the “decision-maker.” You know, the molecule (atom, fermion, boson or whatever) which makes the decisions for all those aimless blind particles in motion. The one molecule that rules them all. The one that makes it possible that there are coherent organisms. The one that understands a thing or two about life. The conductor they all listen to.
    Hopefully for evolutionists it won’t prove to be irreducible complex 🙂

  3. 3
    Seversky says:

    I see Mazur’s still trying to shift that ol’ paradigm.

  4. 4
    Dionisio says:

    Mazur is just reporting what she’s observing.
    That’s what honest journalists are expected to do.
    BTW, the term ‘shift’ in this case seems like an understatement. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say ‘collapse’?

  5. 5
    Dionisio says:

    They ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
    The most fascinating discoveries are still ahead.

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