- Introduction to the Symposium on Recurrent Debates on the Causal Role of Genes
The editors of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine are very pleased to present in this special issue the texts of the papers presented at a recent symposium at the Jacques Loeb Center for the History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheeva, Israel. This issue is the second in a series that we have published devoted to yearly meetings at the Loeb Center. The first focused on a Symposium on Synthetic Life: Scientific, Historical, and Ethical Perspectives and appeared in the Autumn 2012 (volume 56, number 4) issue of this journal. The topic remains particularly timely in view of the extensive interest in this field in recent years.
These new papers were presented at a meeting on May 20–21, 2013, at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. I cite below the intellectual framework of this meeting:
Although genes were long disregarded in both the classical biological field of “developmental mechanics” (experimental embryology) and evolutionary studies, the gene concept proved to be the most powerful idea in 20th-century biology. Yet even as the study of genes became approachable at the molecular level, they were (and remain) frequently misinterpreted. A review of the history of the “gene” in biological research reveals an interesting complexity of concept and conceptual change, scientific reality, and nonscientific myths. [End Page 1]
The editors of the symposium, which was largely conceived and organized by Professor Ute Deichmann, explain briefly in their Introduction to this issue of Perspectives how the contribution of each of the authors relates to this theme. I would emphasize the particular relevance of this topic to current discussions in the biomedical sciences. The concept of the gene which emerged in the early 20th century, culminating with the Watson-Crick model, and melding with evolutionary biology into the New Synthesis, has been shaken to its roots by studies in the present century. These challenges range across a wide spectrum, from the rejection of the uncritically accepted concept of “junk” DNA, the realization of the importance of many RNA species in conveying genetic information, the identification of many (epigenetic) mechanisms for altering the expression and thus the function of classical genetic elements, the recognition of the ability of environmental factors to influence phenotype for multiple generations, and others. This era of genomic sequencing and sophisticated molecular genetic methods has shown the extraordinary complexity of our genetic inheritance. Interestingly, the relatively new field of genetic medicine (or medical genetics) was among the first discipline to show that the “classical” genetic ideas were inadequate to explain important clinical observations. Thus it became clear that the relationship between genotype and phenotype was much more complex than had long been envisioned.
The papers of this symposium can only touch slightly on all the new science that has emerged in these fields, but they give some idea of where we are heading. They succeed in putting this modern revolution into an important perspective, one that emphasizes that concerns about the explanatory power of the gene concept have from the very beginning led to discussions and even arguments about the role attributed to this basically abstract concept. Although for a time many in the biomedical field thought that we understood the structural basis of the genetic flow of information, we now realize that we still remain at a very early stage of linking these abstractions to the more concrete entities we can infer from experiments.
This historical perspective shows, in my view, that our field must always remain hospitable to those who question the paradigms fashionable at any one point. However, the symposium also demonstrates the great utility of certain organizing concepts, even if later studies show them to be only partial insights and wrong in detail. Perhaps we can trace challenges to what has been dubbed the “central paradigm” back to the realization by Howard Temin, David Baltimore, and their colleagues in the 1970s that RNA, as well as DNA, could be the source of genetic information. I suspect that we have many other surprises waiting for us...