Darwinian Reductionism, or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology

Darwinian Reductionism, or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology

Darwinian Reductionism, or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology

Darwinian Reductionism, or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology

Synopsis

After the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, scientists working in molecular biology embraced reductionism- the theory that all complex systems can be understood in terms of their components. Reductionism, however, has been widely resisted by both nonmolecular biologists and scientists working outside the field of biology. Many of these antireductionists, nevertheless, embrace the notion of physicalism- the idea that all biological processes are physical in nature. How, Alexander Rosenberg asks, can these self-proclaimed physicalists also be antireductionists?

With clarity and wit, Darwinian Reductionism navigates this difficult and seemingly intractable dualism with convincing analysis and timely evidence. In the spirit of the few distinguished biologists who accept reductionism- E. O. Wilson, Francis Crick, Jacques Monod, James Watson, and Richard Dawkins- Rosenberg provides a philosophically sophisticated defense of reductionism and applies it to molecular developmental biology and the theory of natural selection, ultimately proving that the physicalist must also be a reductionist.

Excerpt

I would like to think that my thirty years of reflection on the relationship of molecular biology to the rest of the discipline has consisted in a series of views successively approximating the version of reductionism defended in this book. Alas, that would be a species of self-deception. What is true is that over this period, during which I despaired of finding an argument that would vindicate reductionism about nonmolecular biology, the prospect of irreducibility had weighed heavily on my epistemological and metaphysical conscience. For a biological science that cannot be systematically connected to the rest of natural science gives hostages to mystery mongering or worse— creationism, “intelligent design,” and their new-age variants. in The Structure of Biological Science (1985) and Instrumental Biology or the Disunity of Science (1994), I identified impediments to reduction and attempted to draw the force of their metascientific implications. But neither was a stable equilibrium in the resolution of forces pulling toward the autonomy of biology and pushing toward its integration within physical science.

The reason, I now see, for the inadequacy of these views— different though they were from one another—was their failure fully to appreciate the role of Darwinian theory in biology “all the way down” to the level of the macromolecule, along with the recognition that biology is history. the former thesis must be credited to Theodosius Dobzhansky, and in this book has accordingly been dubbed Dobzhansky’s dictum: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” where, of course, evolution means the Darwinian mechanism of blind variation and natural selection. the latter thesis, that biology as a discipline is history, should probably be credited to Charles Darwin himself, though the philosopher whose writings have most impressed it upon me is Elliot Sober. Probably more of . . .

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