- Editors’ Introduction to Special Issue
In 2000, Evelyn Fox Keller suggested that the term gene had “become a hindrance to the understanding of biologists” (148). That same year, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, in the introduction to a multi-authored volume on The Concept of the Gene in Development and Evolution, argued that “genes begin to look like hardly definable temporary products of cell’s physiology . . . amorphous entities of unclear existence ready to vanish” (Beurton, Falk, and Rheinberger 2000, x). Meanwhile, supporters of the developmental systems theory fought for a “re-equilibration” of the causal factors involved in development, genes being merely one among varied resources, and also downgraded further in favor of extra-genetic inheritance (Oyama et al. 2001).
Almost 15 years have now passed. The gene is still present, and its causal role in genetics and development has been conserved. The principal objective of the meeting organized by the Jacques Loeb Centre at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, from which the following papers originate, was to reexamine these debates about genes and their causal role by gathering together leading biologists, philosophers, and historians.
Historians have shown that the gene has been a changing concept since it was first conceptualized at the end of the 19th century, and it has changed according to the theoretical and practical uses to which it was put. Garland Allen reminds us of the economic and philosophical context in which the early growth of genetics took place: mechanistic materialism supported the particulate model of the gene, [End Page 4] which opened new possibilities for industrialization of agriculture. Nils Roll-Hansen provides a nice example of the complexities of history: Wilhelm Johannsen, who introduced the term gene (in 1909) and the distinction between genotype and phenotype (in 1906), was reluctant to admit the localization of genes on the chromosomes. For him, genotype was a holistic notion that could be identified with the organism as a whole. This strange (for us) attitude was motivated by his desire to exclude any form of morphological preformism from the notions of gene and genotype.
In the early decades of research, genes were considered insufficient by many for explaining complex biological phenomena, and they were rejected for philosophical reasons, such as a predilection for holistic explanations and Lamarckian inheritance. By providing a broad overview of the various oppositions to the causal role of genes, Ute Deichmann demonstrates, a contrario, how research programs based on genes have indeed been productive until the present time. The lesson is that historians must avoid regarding past opposition to genes and their causal role as anticipations of the recent questioning of the received view of the structure and functions of genes. This has emerged entirely from results obtained during recent decades.
Eric Davidson, together with Isabelle Peter and Emmanuel Faure, synthesized the computation automaton for development on the basis of the most comprehensive gene regulatory network model. In a reflection on the meaning of this work, Davidson shows that the development of a complex eukaryotic organism—the sea urchin—is fully driven by its genes acting within a hierarchical gene regulatory network.
Genes are also highly visible in current technical and scientific discussions—even corporations now have their own genes and DNA. However, genes are often simply used as biomarkers, and their causal role is left aside. This is the case when, for example, forensic scientists working with the police use DNA to identify potential criminals. It is also the case when genes are recruited to tell us something about the existence of races, or the origins of peoples. Myles Jackson shows how biological criteria were used to hierarchize, and discriminate, human populations from the end of the 18th century. Justification of slavery in the 19th century, based on the purported existence of biological differences between Caucasians and Africans is a striking example. Later, genetic markers were also used; it has been shown that eugenic policies in the United States were targeted mainly against people of color. The idea that human races could be distinguished by the possession of specific genetic markers has been discredited, but Jackson shows how the question of the...