The Philosophy of Biology

Volume 1 of the series History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences pp 597-628


Against “Genes For”: Could an Inclusive Concept of Genetic Material Effectively Replace Gene Concepts?

  • Richard M. BurianAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Email author 
  • , Kostas KampourakisAffiliated withSecretariat of Educational Research and Development, Geitonas School

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This chapter focuses on the interactions between developmental, evolutionary, and genetic considerations in thinking about the structure and content of the genetic material and how it is regulated, with additional attention to the role of genetics in biomedical research. We suggest an approach to teaching non-professionals about genetics by paying attention to these issues and how they have been transformed by molecular tools and doctrines. Our main aim is to debunk the intuitive and widespread notion of “genes for”. The perspective proposed in this chapter should help students engage with the issues raised by contemporary biomedicine and biotechnology. We suggest that in many contexts it is wise to replace the concept of the gene with the concept of the genetic material as a vehicle for integrating developmental, evolutionary, and genetic considerations and for understanding the importance of genetics in biomedicine and biotechnology. In doing so, questions about genes turn into questions about the genetic material, which then can become a tool for integrating knowledge of other biological sciences. This policy should enter into early teaching about genetics in high schools and colleges. In the process, one will be able to develop helpful arguments against overly-narrow versions of genetic determinism and for the importance of a broad understanding of genes and inheritance.