"-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.
What do biologists want? If, unlike their counterparts in physics, biologists are generally wary of a grand, overarching theory, at what kinds of explanation do biologists aim? A history of the diverse and changing nature of biological explanation in a particularly charged field, "Making Sense of Life" draws our attention to the temporal, disciplinary, and cultural components of what biologists mean, and what they understand, when they propose to explain life.
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).
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 (...) 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 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)
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)
In this powerful critique, the esteemed historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller addresses the nature-nurture debates, including the persistent disputes regarding the roles played by genes and the environment in determining individual traits and behavior. Keller is interested in both how an oppositional “versus” came to be inserted between nature and nurture, and how the distinction on which that opposition depends, the idea that nature and nurture are separable, came to be taken for granted. How, she asks, did (...) the illusion of a space between nature and nurture become entrenched in our thinking, and why is it so tenacious? Keller reveals that the assumption that the influences of nature and nurture can be separated is neither timeless nor universal, but rather a notion that emerged in Anglo-American culture in the late nineteenth century. She shows that the seemingly clear-cut nature-nurture debate is riddled with incoherence. It encompasses many disparate questions knitted together into an indissoluble tangle, and it is marked by a chronic ambiguity in language. There is little consensus about the meanings of terms such as nature, nurture, gene, and environment. Keller suggests that contemporary genetics can provide a more appropriate, precise, and useful vocabulary, one that might help put an end to the confusion surrounding the nature-nurture controversy. (shrink)
This chapter contains sections titled: Introduction Systems Biology Function: A Minimalist Conception Kant and As‐If Purpose Cybernetics and Bernard Machines A Guarded Optimism Postscript: Counterpoint References.
Cultural accounts of scientific ideas and practices have increasingly come to be welcomed as a corrective to previous—and still widely held—theories of scientific knowledge and practices as universal. The editors caution, however, against the temptation to overgeneralize the work of culture, and to lapse into a kind of essentialism that flattens the range and variety of scientific work. The book refers to this tendency as culturalism. The contributors to the volume model a new path where historicized and cultural accounts of (...) scientific practice retain their specificity and complexity without falling into the traps of culturalism. They examine, among other issues, the potential of using notions of culture to study behavior in financial markets; the ideology, organization, and practice of earthquake monitoring and prediction during China's Cultural Revolution; the history of quadratic equations in China; and how studying the "glass ceiling" and employment discrimination became accepted in the social sciences. Demonstrating the need to understand the work of culture as a fluid and dynamic process that directly both shapes and is shaped by scientific practice, Cultures without Culturalism makes an important intervention in science studies. Contributors. Bruno Belhoste, Karine Chemla, Caroline Ehrhardt, Fa-ti Fan,Kenji Ito, Evelyn Fox Keller, Guillaume Lachenal, Donald MacKenzie, Mary S. Morgan, Nancy J. Nersessian, David Rabouin, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Claude Rosental, Koen Vermeir. (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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Genes and messages have a long association in biology, dating back at least to Weismann. But, through most of this history, even with the dramatic concreteness that molecular biology lent to this association, the image dominating most thinking about messages was drawn from the nineteenth-century technology of the telegraph. In the mid-twentieth century, a new technology, the computer, arrived to displace the telegraph. With that displacement, the meanings of many terms—of “message,” “information,” “organization,” indeed, “organism” —have, over the past few (...) decades, all been transformed. In this article, I explore the computer’s impact on biological representation of the organism in two disciplines: molecular biology and developmental biology. (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)