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IDEALIST BIOLOGY STUART A. NEWMAN* Introduction The past decade has seen an enormous upsurge in the technological capacity to intervene in the living world. The drive to apply and commercialize these new techniques, which involve the genetic engineering of plants, animals, and, potentially, humans, for purportedly sound agricultural and medical reasons, has proceeded amid debates on the safety, technical feasibility, and ethical implications of specific proposals. Underlying these discussions is a consensus concerning the accomplishments of modern biology and the depth of understanding it has provided us of living systems. The standard view holds that biologists have "cracked the code oflife" and are now poised to "genetically reprogram" damaged or unsuitable life forms. In contrast to this predominant view, a number of biologists and philosophers of science are beginning to consider the possibility that the "genetic programming" concept, originally presented as a metaphor, has come to be taken too literally and is now an obstacle to thinking clearly about the implications of the new biological technologies. Although the concept has been portrayed as the logical outgrowth of intellectual decisions made by the nineteenth-century biologists Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel in breaking with earlier worldviews—decisions that in their time represented a liberating advance of scientific thought—in many ways it represents a facile distortion of those revolutionary ideas. It has even been suggested that the genetic programming concept has inhibited progress in basic areas of biology such as embryology and evolutionary theory [1-3]. At the very least, it appears that this concept and the view of the biological world that it implies have led the public— as well as many scientists themselves—into a false optimism concerning our present capacity to interact productively with the natural world. *New York Medical College, Valhalla, New York 10595.© 1988 by The University of Chicago. AU rights reserved. 003 1-5982/88/3 103-0575$0 1 .00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 31, 3 · Spring 1988 \ 353 Science as Démystification Some insight concerning the currently prevailing view of life can be gained by examining it in relation to what has traditionally been expected from scientific explanations. Science has advanced in large part by its ability to "demystify" qualitative differences among objects. In particular, new theories have often demonstrated how distinct qualities can be understood as aspects of a uniform underlying process. Before the conceptual changes that led to modern chemical theory, the Swiss natural philosopher Paracelsus (1493-1541) held that chemical substances like sulfur, mercury, and "salt" had distinct souls, and that the various organs of the body—heart, liver, stomach—were presided over by analogous spirits, or archaei. While not susceptible to direct experimental testing, such ideas could nonetheless guide the accumulation of useful knowledge. Paracelsus, for example, was able to prepare and partially characterize the gaseous element hydrogen as a result of his efforts to release the spirits embodied in certain metals. However, in the absence ofan understanding ofthe continuities underlying distinct qualities , the conditions of their coming into being, and their transformation from one into another, there is little alternative but to view them as eternal and irreducible. Actual existing objects will usually partake of these ideal qualities in only an imperfect, approximate way. Such a conceptual framework, known to philosophy as "idealism," can obviously lead to intellectual dead ends. A scientific theory for a set of phenomena can replace a philosophically idealist conception of qualitative distinctions between certain objects or processes with a materialist understanding of their underlying continuity. Modern chemistry's great achievement was the recognition that every grain of matter in the world, representing an enormous range ofqualitative properties, can be generated by combinations ofonly a few dozen fundamental elements. Ultimately even these "elemental" qualities were accounted for by differences between the elements' atoms in numbers of electrons, protons, and neutrons. The growth of chemicalbased industries, the quintessential mode of modern production, followed from the capability of transforming matter made possible by these discoveries. With them also came the realization of the alchemists' dream of changing lead into gold as well as the ability to create new elements, exhibiting qualities that were previously unknown and, in some cases, nonexistent. However, the existence of a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 353-368
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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