1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · Events

Egenis seminar with Professor Ken Waters, 'Metaphysical implications of conceptual practice in genetics'

Seminar   02.04.2012






Professor Kenneth Waters, University of Minnesota

Organised by



University of Exeter
Byrne House
address>St German's Road

Room no: GF7

Event details

Time: 2.00 - 3.30pm


What is the general nature of the natural world? Many philosophers assume that the world consists of different kinds of fundamental entities, properties, relations, processes, or structures. They believe that the aim of science is to identify these fundamentals. When science succeeds, on this view, it must be cutting nature close to its joints, revealing the fundamentals. Many philosophers frame questions about particular sciences in ways that presuppose this metaphysics. For example, in biology, philosophers often focus on questions about the fundamental kinds of entities such as species, organisms (or “individuals”), and genes, on fundamental properties such as fitness, and on fundamental processes such as drift and group selection. Research is often framed by questions such as ‘what is a gene?’, ‘what is fitness?’, ‘what is group selection?’ In this talk, I will argue that trying to answer such questions by philosophically scrutinizing the most advanced biological sciences undermines the very metaphysical upon which these questions are based.

I will use the question, ‘what is a gene?’ as an illustrative example for this general point. The common assumption among those trying to answer this question is that a correct answer must provide a uniquely correct parsing of the DNA molecule into its fundamental parts. But conceptual practice in contemporary genetics does not provide the basis for any such parsing. But my analysis of conceptual practice will show that what I call the molecular gene concept serves as a precise and flexible tool. This conceptual tool enables biologists to pick out the exact nucleotide sequences in a DNA molecule that determine linear sequences in specific contexts. This concept provides a mind-boggling multiplicity of parsings relevant to a mind-boggling hodge-podge of different contexts. What makes the gene concept so powerful is that it enables biologists to get a clear understanding of some specific, very context-dependent relationships and use this partial knowledge to manipulate cells and organisms in remarkable ways. Hence, the success of the science is not based on identifying a fundamental parsing of DNA; rather, it is based on parsing DNA in a multiplicity of ways that are extraordinarily useful for manipulating organisms.

I will conclude that the question epistemologists should be asking is not “what is a gene?” but rather “how do (should) biologists conceive of genes?” That is, the basic questions philosophers of biology have been asking should be reframed as questions about conceptual practices. The most successful conceptual practices across the biological sciences reveal that empirical success in biology depends on individuating communities, species, organisms, evolutionarily significant properties and processes, as well as genes in a multiplicity of ways. And this indicates that the general nature of the biological world is one of immense complexity that will not yield to a simple parsing into fundamental entities, properties, processes, or structures. There are no fundamentals. What there is, speaking at the most general level, is a mess.

Further details