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CONCLUSION A PHILOSOPHY OF EPIGENETICS Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains. ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD, 1938 SEVERAL OF THE ISSUES discussed in this book have a common ancestor that can even be located in space and time: Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio , Italy, 1966 to 1970. At this Rockefeller Foundation villa overlooking the beautiful Lake Como, Conrad Hal Waddington, the grandfather of epigenetics, held four symposia to which he invited several internationally renowned theoretical, developmental, and molecular biologists, as well as physicists, mathematicians, linguists, and philosophers. Among others, the participants were Ernst Mayr, Francis Crick, Lewis Wolpert, Richard Lewontin, John Maynard Smith, Ruth Sager, Stuart Kauffman, René Thom, Christopher Zeeman, and Brian Goodwin. At the advent of philosophy of biology, the focal point of these meetings was to sketch a research program of theoretical biology. The proceedings of these meetings were entitled Towards a Theoretical Biology (Waddington 1968, 1969b, 1970b, 1972). 1 202 ◂ CONCLUSION According to Waddington, this biological discipline should be located where theoretical and philosophical issues of biology intersect. It can be understood as an expansion of attempts of the organicists, especially in the 1920s to 1930s, to investigate the conceptual foundations of biology. However , while these earlier discussions have been focused primarily on the question of how biology can be located between mechanicism and vitalism , Waddington understood theoretical biology to be concerned, first and foremost, with those issues related to the complexity of living systems, as well as the relations between the systems’ micro- and macrostates. During these four meetings, various approaches were discussed regarding how to model complex systems, their dynamics, and stability characteristics. Somewhat anticipating recent theoretical developments, Richard Lewontin even gave a talk titled “On the Irrelevance of Genes” and called for developing a “‘geneless’ theory of population genetics” (see in Waddington 1970b, 71). Moreover, conceptual models like Mayr’s distinction between proximate and ultimate causes have been discussed. 2 These meetings may be understood as Waddington’s last attempt to enrich his work in developmental and evolutionary biology, primarily on what he coined “epigenetics,” by a wider, more interdisciplinary, and more philosophically informed research program. This attempt has served as a model and stimulus for the present book. I have tried here to trace his idea that there exists a channel of reciprocal “fertilization” between the various phenomena, the conceptual, explanatory, and methodological characteristics of epigenetics, and the current debates in philosophy of science—a channel that is waiting to be joined by philosophers of biology and biologists . Thus, the issues discussed in this book may be understood, again in a Waddingtonian way, as a methodological skeleton of concepts and topics pointing toward a philosophy of epigenetics. Guided by this motive, this book has offered a discussion of philosophical issues emerging from the interplay between scientific explanations, methods, and the complexity of living systems investigated in modern epigenetics . By building on Waddington’s original definition of epigenetics as a complexity science concerned with the causal analysis of development, it has been investigated how causality or causal mechanisms are traced in modern epigenetics and how they are conceptualized in, for example, experiment-based causal and mechanistic models, mathematical models, ▸ 203 CONCLUSION or models inferring causality from observational data. More such analyses are urgently needed, because epigenetic agents gradually seem to take over genes’ causal and explanatory supremacy. Previously, notions like the “epigenetic turn” and “epi-geneticization” were introduced to circumscribe in a rather fuzzy way the feeling that contemporary epigenetics seems to introduce something new to modern biology . One common answer seeking to specify this “something” was the idea that epigenetics reintroduces the seemingly outdated concept of Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics into biological theory. This claim has provoked a wide discussion in academia, as well as in the wider public. While the Lamarckian dimension of epigenetics is a historically interesting debate, in this book I have tried to assess epigenetics’ particular theoretical character as well as the structure of the current “epigenetic turn” from a different philosophical perspective. By focusing on conceptualizations of complex living systems and scientific explanation in epigenetics, this book has defended the view that, as a consequence of their interest in grasping a special layer of biological complexity , labeled “epigenetic complexity,” epigeneticists play an important role in developing a novel explanatory agenda. Let me briefly summarize this argument: epigenetics has been shown to investigate molecular complexity in an expanded manner, both structurally and dynamically (see chap. 1). In other words...


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