The next century may belong to biology, but in the hands of a generation of ultra-Darwinists, it is suffering from a crude reductionismby Steven Rose / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Genes and environment are the raw material out of which we construct ourselves
The first half of the 20th century belonged to the physicists, whose apotheosis came in Hir-oshima and Nagasaki. But in recent decades we have seen the rise of the biologists, with their strident claims to have uncovered the molecular, genetic and evolutionary roots of almost every aspect of the human condition. Our millennial prophets are eager to tell us that our fate lies in our genes, albeit transmitted via the “mental modules” that Darwinian evolution has bestowed upon us. Biology is destiny. Yet in parallel, a new breed of biotech entrepreneurs offer the Promethean prospect of conquering destiny through genetic manipulation, making us smarter, more beautiful and eternally young.
Both faces of this biology are grounded in a profound reductionism: the claim that the multidimensional complexity of living processes can be read off from the one-dimensional “book of life,” the “code of codes,” inscribed within our DNA. Irrespective of the ethical, social and legal consequences of such a philosophy, I believe this is based in a deep misunderstanding of living processes. The misunderstanding derives in part from the philosophical and ideological framework within which modern science-biology included-has developed since its birth in the 17th century.
We must begin, however, with the question of how our knowledge itself is shaped. Natural science claims that its methods of hypothesis, observation and experiment permit something like a true representation of reality. But for 30 years philosophers, historians and sociologists of science have rightly pointed to the ways in which our scientific knowledge is culturally constructed-offering at best a constrained interpretation of the world. One such constraint is provided by the nature of our brains and the biology of perception. How we perceive the world is affected by our hormonal, immunological and physiological state. We perceive the world as we do because our visual system is capable of sensing only a limited range of wavelengths; our mass and volume give us a particular relationship to gravity not shared, for example, by bacteria or beetles, or by whales or elephants. Our sense of the temporality of events is shaped by the fact that we live for anything up to a century. Bacteria divide every 20 minutes or so, mayflies live for a day, redwood trees for thousands of years. Technologies enable us to escape these limitations, to observe in the ultraviolet,…