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The machinery of protein synthesis is elaborate, but the individual steps are, in principle, simple. BERNARD D. DAVIS, 1980 For God’s sake, let us be men not monkeys minding machines or sitting with our tails curled while the machine amuses us, the radio or film or gramophone. Monkeys with a bland grin on our faces. D. H. LAWRENCE, 1929 THE CONCEPT OF MECHANISM has been widely talked about in molecular biology ever since its rise as a discipline. For example, when François Jacob and Jacques Monod (1961, 353; emphasis added) tried to address the phenomenon of information transfer from DNA to protein, they described a mechanism taken to be responsible for the molecular explanandum phenomenon —the messenger RNA mechanism: “The property attributed to FOUR MECHANISTIC EXPLANATION 130 ◂ MECHANISTIC EXPLANATION the structural messenger of being an unstable intermediate is one of the most specific and novel implications of this scheme. . . . This leads to a new concept of the mechanism of information transfer, where the protein synthesizing centers (ribosomes) play the role of non-specific constituents which can synthesize different proteins, according to specific instructions which they receive from the genes through M-RNA.” This interest in mechanisms can be traced back at least to the classical period of molecular biology in the early 1950s. James Watson and Francis Crick (1953, 737) refer to the organizational structure of DNA as a mechanism that is (in part) responsible for the phenomenon of DNA replication: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing [of bases in the DNA helix] we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” Since epigeneticists are primarily molecular biologists, it is thus not surprising that the word mechanism is used by them as well—despite the fact that nonmechanistic causal explanations are also widely used in this new field, as shown in the preceding chapter. For example, Eva Jablonka and Gal Raz (2009, 131; emphasis added) refer to four “mechanisms that underlie [cellular and transgenerational] epigenetic inheritance”: self-sustaining feedback loops, structural inheritance, chromatin marking, and RNAmediated inheritance (see chap. 1). Moreover, this talk of mechanisms also appears in the few more philosophical considerations of epigenetics, unfortunately , without clarifying the concept of mechanism (see, e.g., Lamm 2013; and Lux 2013). Against this backdrop, the question remains whether the word mechanism we find in this newly emerging research on the molecular basis of epigenetic control systems means the same as its linguistic equivalent in classical studies in molecular biology. A prominent idea not only among traditional molecular biologists but also among philosophers of science in the so-called “new mechanism movement” is that a causal mechanism and its role in explanation are best elucidated by drawing on the properties of machines. Against this view, I argue that many epigeneticists introduce a concept of mechanism that draws on different ontological background assumptions. In addition, I show that in some epigenetic models mechanisms have to be labeled “noncausal,” since they contain nondifference -making component parts. ▸ 131 MECHANISTIC EXPLANATION THE NEW MECHANISTS AND CONSTITUTIVE MOLECULAR EXPLANATION The subject of mechanistic explanation, or whether causal explanations are in need of mechanistic information from lower levels of organization that back them up, was already broached in the previous chapter. Let us now discuss in more detail the concept of mechanism and the structure of constitutive mechanistic explanation. Since the publication of William Bechtel and Robert Richardson’s (1993) book Discovering Complexity: Decomposition and Localization as Strategies in Scientific Research, philosophers of science in general and philosophers of biology in particular have shown increasing interest in analyzing what mechanisms and mechanistic explanations are. This project was begun in an effort to make up for shortcomings of law-centered accounts of explanation in the special sciences dealing with regularities in multilevel complexity (see, e.g., Bechtel and Richardson 1993; Bechtel 2006; and Craver 2007). It has come to be labeled the “new mechanism movement” or “new mechanistic philosophy.” It was driven by the idea of making sense of the fact that biologists often refer to causal mechanisms when investigating living phenomena-to-be-explained (see Kauffman 1971a). According to the standard philosophical reconstruction of this scientific practice, mechanisms are thought to identify causal relations taken to be responsible for bringing about the explanandum phenomenon. In the new mechanistic philosophy we find an increasing number of definitions of the notion of “mechanism.” Here are some widely used examples: Mechanisms are entities and activities organized such that they are productive...


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