Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Aristotle and Modern Genetics

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Aristotle and Modern Genetics

Article excerpt

All of biology is a footnote to Aristotle.1

I. Biological Interpretations of Aristotle

Aristotle has experienced something of a renaissance among biologists of late; that is, as the late Ernst Mayr observed, biologists "are beginning to be more tolerant of Aristotle."2 Mayr famously suggested that if we exchange every occurrence of "eidos" in Aristotle's corpus with the modern notion of a "genetic program," then Aristotle is fully in line with modern genetics.3 Werner Müller has made substantially the same point, arguing that if we substitute "genetic information" for Aristotle's entelecheia, then we have our modern explanation of organic development.4 With tongue in cheek, though in the same vein, Max Delbrück (properly a physicist but an honorary biologist for our purposes) suggested that "if that committee in Stockholm, which has the unenviable task each year of pointing out the most creative scientists, had the liberty of giving awards posthumously, I think they should consider Aristotle for the discovery of the principle implied in DNA. It is my contention that Aristotle's principle of the "unmoved mover" perfectly describes DNA: "it acts, creates form and development and is not changed in the process."5

We shall challenge both the pictures of Aristotle and of organic development offered in these quick caricatures. Our first aim is to attempt to clarify what Mayr and Müller are in fact maintaining and to show where they are mistaken both exegetically and scientifically.

Mayr suggested that though Aristotle was an impressive thinker, his "primitive" scientific work lacked the methodological rigor of modern science. He lamented the "backward state of biological explanation" available to Aristotle and everyone else prior to the twentieth century.6 Aristotle attempted to explain the specificity of development, why it is that frogs give rise to frogs and not kittens, which he did, apparently, by positing a vitalistic eidos. Alas, Mayr contended, Aristotle's explanation was entirely inadequate, inasmuch as until we understood genetics, we were hopelessly mired in such pseudo-scientific vitalism and so simply could not satisfactorily explain the specificity of development.

Mayr insisted that Aristotle really was on to something; he just didn't have the tools and concepts to offer a plausible analysis. Where Aristotle putatively took refuge in a kind of vitalism, we now ostensibly know better that the specificity of development is due to the presence of a "genetic program" encoding species-specific "instructions for development." As Mayr explained, "only in our time was it realized that Aristotle's eidos, the seemingly metaphysical agent, is nothing else but what we now refer to as the genetic program." As we have learned, Mayr contended, "the development of a fertilized egg is guided by a genetic program,"7 which he defined simply as "the information coded in an organism's DNA."8 Other biologists, such as Werner Müller, similarly invoke "genetic information" as governing the development of organisms and hold that the notion of genetic information helped us to overcome centuries of unscientific vitalism from Aristotle through Hans Driesch. On these views, then, the regulative development of a complex organism may be explained in an updated putatively Aristotelian manner by invoking preprogrammed genetic instructions as a scientifically sound surrogate for a scientifically unsound vitalistic teleology.

II. Reinterpreting Development

Despite the overblown rhetoric surrounding recent advances in developmental and molecular biology, it is entirely inaccurate to suppose that organic development is remotely akin to the execution of a program specifying genetically preformed instructions. The very idea of a genetic program for development has been roundly and justly criticized in recent years.9 In fact, prying just a little more deeply into the genetic program, instructions, and information tropes reveals a modern, genetic variant of vitalism, inasmuch as an immaterial informational program is supposed to direct the organization of matter. …

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