Conceptual History of Biology (pt2)



Reading through science studies, sts, history of science, and philosophy of science it is easy to lose all sense of what science is to the fields that attempt to study it. The multiplication of philosophy of fields of science (such as philosophy of chemistry or philosophy of biology) also begs the question of what is philosophy of science in a general form…does it make any sense to take about philosophy of science other than as a collection of types of theory applied to specific sciences?

Furthermore, the type of philosophy applied to any given science puts the field into narrower and narrower spaces as philosophy of science tends to mean analytic philosophy of science while continental philosophy of science is usually viewed as science and technology studies or sociology of science. The French tradition of continental philosophy of science is a partial exception (Koyre, Bachelard, Canguilhem etc) but it is more and more treated as a bygone form of post-war philosophy that transformed into a type of social constructivism (a la Latour).

If there was a general philosophy of science it would seem pulled between a general epistemology and a general metaphysics. But then immediately we can ask is this any different from epistemology and metaphysics as such? In the analytic context it would seem that the answer is ‘no’ but for the continental tradition it is ‘yes.’ Yet how this question can be answered in this split fashion relies upon a very different attitude towards the history of science and the conceptual consequences of that history vis a vis the disciplinary divide of philosophy from science.

I think that one could argue that a certain epistemological purity in analytic philosophy (at least for quite some time) allowed for a certain resistance to history whereas in the continental tradition history became the deciding factor about what it was science was actually doing. This is why analytic metaphysics which relies upon science often uses older but more stable sciences where the closer you get to the 20th century continental philosophy disregards new sciences or new forms of science as bad rationalism or bad metaphysics.

Whereas someone like Bergson at least read the contemporary biology of his time when he wrote Creative Evolution he dismissed Einsteinian relativity as being crypto-metaphysics. But those after Bergson who write on life (in the context of biopilosophy) will more and more readily dismiss the science less for its conceptual or metaphysical trespasses than for its possible (and sometimes actual) political consequences.

Both philosophy of science and biophilosophy pay scant attention to the pre-synthesis texts and thinkers other than as inevitably leading to the confirmation of Darwin’s theories (hence the rather misleading name eclipse of Darwinism). As I have mentioned previously the eclipse refers to the period following the publication of the Origin (1859). Skepticism regarding natural selection led to various combinations of Neo-Lamarckian and different notions of temporality (recapitulation) and so forth with Darwin’s account of the transformation of species (as he avoided the word evolution with its pre-formationist history).

It can be argued that Darwin’s argument by analogy opened the door to combinations with progressivist or teleological or othrogenetic dogmas. Though Darwin did not endorse these in any explicit sense the historical neglect of the details of the ‘eclipse’ make the jump from Darwin to genetics miraculous and inevitable at once. I talked about this two entries ago regarding the divisions between the early geneticists and the biostatisticians and there are few better guides to what happened after Darwin than Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny. To call this period (1860-1920ish) an ‘eclipse’ of Darwin assumes that Darwin had a fully fledged and correct theory that was just not appreciated until the modern synthesis. This is misleading in a variety of ways.

For one it erases those who attempted to prove Darwin’s theories in those decades. Someone like O.C. Marsh did more than anyone (according to Darwin himself) to fill out the fossil record. There were also important developments in biophysics (how to understand the energy output of living beings which Helmholtz began) and explorations in the tension between the developmental rates of certain features of the organism and camouflage (ie patterns to help camouflage an insect may be dis adaptive till they get older etc).

How much of the synthesis is about provided a unified notion of biology for the sake of it being considered a science that can stand on its own conceptual footing? There is a bad tendency in many histories of biology (and also among biologists) to dismiss complications to Darwinian evolution as if they are rivals or atavistic theories. The case made against C.H. Waddington is a good example of this. While Waddington would seem to belong on the cluster of mutationists cited previously (in the group of those who emphasize phenotype and macro evolution) he was considered too-Lamarckian even by their standards (especially by Ernst Mayr). Waddington’s ideas seem rather tame as he emphasized epigenetic traits in the sense of how the environment affords and pushes back against the determination of gene flow. It is telling that Waddington also wrote the preface to original French and the English translation of Rene Thom’s Structural Stability and Morphogenesis.

Much of Waddington’s work is later dismissed (as is the whole enterprise of theoretical biology) because it is claimed that the same work can be done with molecular biology. Jablonka and Lamb’s Evolution in 4 Dimensions is one of the more recent works that actually takes Waddington’s notion of canalization and of epigenetic landscapes seriously. The concept is described in the text below:


Jablonka and Lamb argue that it is largely due to ecological concerns in biology that Waddington’s ideas are again becoming of interest. Jablonka and Lamb also emphasize that biochemistry and Waddington’s ideas are not necessarily in conflict as the work of Susan Lindquist shows in terms of protein folding (something important in neurological diseases especially though involving prions like in the case of mad cow).

Another way of emphasizing the importance of Waddington’s work is to think of epigenetics (or more narrowly phenotypic traits) as the paddles and bells in a pinball machine -they are more fixed but can have very particular and stubborn avenues of motion upon genetic material (the pinball). The importance of phenotypic action is quite evident in what we are experiencing right now epiedemiologically. In addition the UK’s calls for herd immunity is an obvious misunderstanding of this kind of difference since to speak of herd immunity without a vaccine is simply to wish for death.

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