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Genes and inter-disciplinarity

Author: joe

Friday, 11 November, 2011 - 00:13

The 'gene' is an example of a concept which means something to everyone, but different things to different interests. To mainstream geneticists it is supposed to be the 'molecular unit of heredity'; to lay people the gene is the brute fact that makes us what we are; some sociologists argue that the gene is a social construct; meanwhile a few molecular biologists might also argue that the gene is a convenient shorthand which is otherwise inadequate for the functions we expect it to fulfil.

Each of these different domains brings different conceptions of the gene, often based on disciplinary ontologies which are incompatible, using criteria for factual legitimacy which conflict with each other. The shared use of vocabulary only serves as a mask for the competing accounts of the gene's form, provenance and function. The various morphologies of the gene as they appear in the respective disciplinary approaches often reflect those domains' practices, values and self-preserving interests.

The pursuit of the basic unit of heredity during the 20th century inflected the gene with the pervasive attitudes of the times. As part of the effort to find an explanatory mechanism for heredity as articulated by Gregor Mendel, Wilhem Johannsen's coining of the word in 1909 formed part of the search for a unitary, invariant, material, autonomous and causal 'master molecule' which directed inherited characteristics, phenotypic development and evolutionary variation, which could play the same role in biology that the atom played in physics. As more was understood about the action and dynamism of DNA encoding, the scientific emphasis moved onto 'programming', in which the metaphor of contemporary technological and cultural forms were drafted in to provide a model for the gene's function. By the end of the century, even as the first sketch of the human genome was published, the very notion of a sequence of DNA which had discoverable boundaries, independent causal properties and sufficient reach to account for inheritance, development and variation, was approaching collapse.

At the same time that scientific disciplines intimately concerned with governing the definition and analysis of the gene were gradually developing their ever evolving and nuanced conceptions of its formal properties, the dominant model of genetic determinism was leaking out of the laboratories and journals and into common public understanding. Even if the scientific establishment were to publicly pronounce on the dissolution of the gene in favour of more complex, non-linear, pan-genomic and epigenetic biological development in which a dynamic network of distributed causal processes intertwine with environmental factors to influence individual morphology and heritability, such an epistemic break would be unlikely to reverse the folk-wisdom that can be mobilised to play nature against nurture, account for idiosyncratic behaviour, or even justify dogma and prejudice, by a simple explanatory abstraction which at best appeals to fate and the hand which we are dealt, and at worst ascribes contingent and malleable factors to apparently blind and deterministic forces.

What would it look like to develop shared or non-exclusive ontologies between these competing domains? How might people from each discipline negotiate models that can include different worldviews through accommodation, rather than exclude them through competition? Evelyn Fox Keller's work both as scientist and as a historian of science is instructive. Following her experiences as a woman working within the male-dominated field of science, she contributed to the analysis of the gender-related cultural and social relations that were encoded in scientific approaches that valorised 'master molecules', 'founder cells' and other causal agents in molecular biology, and thus brought into view the way that sciences, because they are caught up in the social order, often discover 'in nature' what they have already put there. However, once her work was championed in the critical field of science and technology studies, she nevertheless maintained that the choice to be either a scientist, or a historian of science, was a false one: it is not necessary to reject all of the accomplishments and affordances of a particular discipline in order to provide a constructive critique of its blind spots or weaknesses. Fox Keller's contribution is salient precisely because she engages with her discipline both as a practitioner and as an observer and critic, rather than merely as an apostate.

The lesson here then is that the bridging between different disciplinary perspectives can't depend on critique alone but must also work by engagement. For example, the partisanship that exists between scientific communities and sociologists of science has little effect on the practice of science as such by its proponents, nor on the engagement with social scientists with empirical problems. Even in multi-disciplinary approaches, such as scientists and artists collaborating in specific research fields, the participants often work in parallel isolation, with non-overlapping methods and dissemination, remaining hermetically sealed from each other's worlds. The challenge of genuine inter-disciplinarity is to bypass 'either/or' choices, and to consider 'both/and' possibilities. How does - or how could - a folk-psychology worldview map onto a scientistic worldview; how might a phenomenological and a positivist approach accommodate each other? What are the consequences for ontology and epistemology in such cases if pursued faithfully?

Categories: inter-disciplinarity, genes, science, ontology, epistemology, Evelyn Fox Keller,
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