Science & Education

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 273–284 | Cite as

The Allusion of the Gene: Misunderstandings of the Concepts Heredity and Gene

  • Raphael FalkEmail author


Life sciences became Biology, a formal scientific discipline, at the turn of the nineteenth century, when it adopted the methods of reductive physics and chemistry. Mendel’s hypothesis of inheritance of discrete factors further introduced a quantitative reductionist dimension into biology. In 1910 Johannsen differentiated between the phenotype, which defines traits, and their genotype, the hereditary essence of such traits and their entities—the genes. The efforts to characterize these entities culminated in 1953, in Watson–Crick’s physico-chemical double helix model of DNA, the hereditary matter. However, the more molecular biology advanced the less real were its entities: Genes became generic units of heredity. The increasing role of science in society, and the mutual interdependence of the two on each other augmented the urge of the public at large to find in science icons of authority; the generic nature of the gene concept allowed scientists to offer it as the bait, even though advances in research made it clear that a distinction must be maintained between advances in reductive methodologies and the progress of systems’ conceptions. Genes out of context are meaningless. There are no “genes for” a trait: even if a specific change in a site on the DNA sequence may end in a conspicuous change in a trait, it must be realized that many sites in the DNA, in the cell, and in the organism as a complex integrated system in its environment, determine or rather, condition traits. The role of science is asking questions by putting up hypotheses and suggesting methods of testing them rather than in providing definite answers.


Living System Functional Entity Hypothetical Construct Reductionist Methodology Biological Determinism 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I wish to thank Sam S. Schweber, Diane B. Paul, and an anonymous reviewer for their critical, incisive, and most helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Genetics, and the Program for the History and Philosophy of ScienceThe Hebrew University of JerusalemJerusalemIsrael

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