Panpsychic Organicism: Sewall Wright’s Philosophy for Understanding Complex Genetic Systems [Book Review]

Journal of the History of Biology 40 (2):327 - 361 (2007)

Abstract

Sewall Wright first encountered the complex systems characteristic of gene combinations while a graduate student at Harvard's Bussey Institute from 1912 to 1915. In Mendelian breeding experiments, Wright observed a hierarchical dependence of the organism's phenotype on dynamic networks of genetic interaction and organization. An animal's physical traits, and thus its autonomy from surrounding environmental constraints, depended greatly on how genes behaved in certain combinations. Wright recognized that while genes are the material determinants of the animal phenotype, operating with great regularity, the special nature of genetic systems contributes to the animal phenotype a degree of spontaneity and novelty, creating unpredictable trait variations by virtue of gene interactions. As a result of his experimentation, as well as his keen interest in the philosophical literature of his day, Wright was inspired to see genetic systems as conscious, living organisms in their own right. Moreover, he decided that since genetic systems maintain ordered stability and cause unpredictable novelty in their organic wholes (the animal phenotype), it would be necessary for biologists to integrate techniques for studying causally ordered phenomena (experimental method) and chance phenomena (correlation method). From 1914 to 1921 Wright developed his "method of path coefficient" (or "path analysis"), a new procedure drawing from both laboratory experimentation and statistical correlation in order to analyze the relative influence of specific genetic interactions on phenotype variation. In this paper I aim to show how Wright's philosophy for understanding complex genetic systems (panpsychic organicism) logically motivated his 1914-1921 design of path analysis.

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Citations of this work

Darwinism After Mendelism: The Case of Sewall Wright's Intellectual Synthesis in His Shifting Balance Theory of Evolution (1931).Jonathan Hodge - 2011 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (1):30-39.
Darwinism After Mendelism: The Case of Sewall Wright’s Intellectual Synthesis in His Shifting Balance Theory of Evolution.Jonathan Hodge - 2011 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (1):30-39.

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