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Perspectives on Science 8.3 (2000) 286-315



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The Organism is Dead. Long Live the Organism! 1

Manfred D. Laubichler
Princeton University


On June 26, 2000 President Clinton announced the completion of a first draft of the Human Genome in a White House ceremony. 2 Attending the ceremony were Francis Collins, the head of the publicly funded Human Genome Project and J. Craig Venter, renegade scientific entrepreneur and president of Celera Genomics of Rockville, Maryland. Prime Minister Tony Blair also attended, albeit virtually via satellite broadcast from London. By everybody's account the impact of this carefully staged public announcement was mainly symbolical. President Clinton called the still rather preliminary map of the human genome the "most wondrous map ever produced by humankind" and an "epic-making triumph of science and reason." The joint appearance of Collins and Venter was intended to symbolize the end of the animosities between the public and the private Genome Projects. This would be all the more important in the future because, as President Clinton suggested, "there is much hard work yet to be done." Also mending the heated divisions between the two projects was Eric Lander, director of MIT's Whitehead Institute, who--not for the first [End Page 286] time--claimed that the separate approaches taken by the two initiatives were actually "complementary."

Yet the prospect of a finished map and sequence of the human genome (and many others already completed or close to be finished) and the symbolic passing of the torch from publicly funded investigative science to commercial enterprise also symbolizes the end of molecular biology as we know it. Despite Lander's vision of complementarity between approaches and a lot of recent talk about the advantages (and pitfalls) of the emerging new landscape of biomedical science as a collaboration between public and commercial venues, it might somewhat curiously be Hegel who can help us the most in understanding the future fate of molecular biology. An admittedly simplified version of Hegel's dialectical notion of progress states that a thesis is negated by its antithesis only to be reinstated as a synthesis at a higher level by the negation of the antithesis. 3 In the case of biology, much of its history can be seen as a continuous struggle between various incarnations of reductionism and mechanism on the one side and different versions of holism on the other. And, as in Hegel's schema, none of these positions ever disappears completely; rather they constantly re-emerge at different levels of sophistication.

Following Hegel, modern molecular biology can then be seen (at least in part) as a response (anti-thesis) to a whole range of holistic, systemic, and organismal theories that flourished during the first decades of the twentieth century. These theories were themselves conceived largely to mediate between earlier extremes of materialistic mechanism and of vitalism in explaining the phenomena of organic regulation, heredity, and development. There are, of course, many other factors that played an important role in the origin of molecular biology and a lot of recent scholarship is devoted to the elucidation of these events. Still, from a bird's-eye perspective a pattern of recurring positions that repeatedly negate each other is clearly discernible throughout the history of biology. The specific details of this dynamic are rather complicated--there are, for instance, no clear breaks in the succession of different views and these respective positions are themselves not homogenous. But, all things considered, it can safely be said that over the last fifty years reductionistic molecular biology has become the dominant research program in modern biomedical research.

In fact, it has become so successful that, as a creative research program, it has run its course. With the identification of biological (genetic, molecular, [End Page 287] and cellular) parts now routine, the analytic tradition is no longer the avant-garde of biology. Rather, as Walter Gilbert recently stated, in the future "the starting point of biological investigation will be theoretical." Due to its own success the reductionist research strategy in molecular biology has negated itself, and questions of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9274
Print ISSN
1063-6145
Pages
pp. 286-315
Launched on MUSE
2000-09-01
Open Access
No
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