The New Biology:
Implications for Philosophy, Theology and Education
Funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, grant 0129
ISSR is undertaking a project on ‘The New Biology: Implications for Philosophy, Theology and Education’, with a grant (0129) from the Templeton World Charity Foundation which is gratefully acknowledged.
The project addresses two problems relating to the new more holistic, systemic, organismal biology that is currently gaining ground: first, that its philosophical and theological implications have not yet been adequately explored; second, that it is not yet being adequately disseminated in either schools or the media.
Two workshops have been held, in October 2015 and September 2016, attended by Prof Michael Reiss (PI), Prof Michael Ruse (Co-PI), Prof David Depew, Dr Ilya Gadjev, Prof Francis Gilbert, Prof Niels Gregersen, Dr Richard Gunton, Prof Ottoline Leyser, Dr Tamjid Mujtaba, Dr Harris Wiseman and Dr Fraser Watts (project co-ordinator). The second workshop was also attended by Prof Steven Yearley (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Ian McGilchrist.
A set of articles arising from the workshops is due to be published in the second issue of Zygon in 2017, consisting of:
1. Holistic Biology: What It Is and Why It Matters
Fraser Watts & Michael Reiss
Recent developments towards a more holistic biology don’t eliminate reductionism and determinism. However, they do suggest more complex forms of them, in which there are multiple, interacting influences, as there are in complex or chaotic systems. The shift can be found in many areas of biology and medicine, and reference will be made to the role of systemic rather than atomistic explanations of cancer. There is a place for both kinds of explanation, but preferences between the two are a matter of metaphysical choice. For those working within a theological paradigm, this shift to complex explanations in biology is richly suggestive. It suggests a more subtle view of divine action in which God’s purposes are effected through engagement with the complex systems of creation rather than by discrete interventions. It also invites us to connect the inter-dependence that is increasingly evident in nature with the
inter-dependence that is assumed to be central to the nature and purposes of God. Humanity is perhaps being challenged to achieve a degree of social interdependence that parallels the independence manifest in the natural world. It is consonant with the mystical vision of the unity of all things and the Christian conviction that all things cohere in Christ.
2. The Christian’s Dilemma: Organicism or Mechanism?
Is organicism inherently Christian friendly, and for that matter, is mechanism inherently religion non-friendly? They have tended to be, but the story is much more complicated. The long history of the intertwined metaphors of nature taken as an organism, versus that of nature as a machine, reveals that both metaphors have flourished in the endeavors of philosophers, scientists and persons of faith alike. Different kinds of Christians have been receptive to both organicist and mechanistic models, just as various kinds of non-religious scientists have been receptive to both holistic and machine metaphors. While, it is true, organicism has been generally more attractive to persons of faith than mechanism (and vice versa), an overview of the rich and varied history of allegiances to these metaphors –religious and non-religious alike – shows that debate is much more interesting and complex. A brief inspection of conversation surrounding recent scientific discoveries shows that this debate between metaphors is still very much alive today.
3. Developmental Biology, Natural Selection, and the Conceptual Boundaries of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis
David J. Depew & Bruce H. Weber
Using the evolution of the stickleback family of sub-arctic fish as a touchstone, we explore the effect of new discoveries about regulatory genetics, developmental plasticity, and epigenetic inheritance on the conceptual foundations of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. Identifying the creativity of natural selection as the hallmark of the Modern Synthesis, we show that since its inception its adherents have pursued a variety of research projects that at first seemed to conflict with its principles, but were accommodated. We situate challenges coming from developmental biology in a dialectic between innovation and tradition, suggesting on the basis of past episodes that even if developmental plasticity and epigenetic inheritance are aligned with its principles the Modern Synthesis (and its image in the public reception of evolution) will be significantly affected.
4. Epigenetics, Representation and Society
In recent decades, advances in the life sciences have created an unprecedentedly detailed picture of heredity and the formation of the phenotype where clusters of simplistic reductionist and deterministic views and interpretations have begun to lose ground to more complex and holistic notions and approaches. The developments in gene regulation and epigenetics have become a vivid emblem of the ongoing ‘softening’ of heredity. Despite this headway, the outlook and rhetoric widely popular in the 20th century favoring the ‘gene’ in the ‘genegenetic plasticityphenotypeenvironment’ tetrad have not been successfully tackled but continue to exist in parallel with a new, equally monochromatic, viewpoint championing genetic plasticity. An examination of epigenetics and its presentation in the public sphere, open to a conversation with the social disciplines and philosophy, could address this dichotomy and contribute to the discourse. This article outlines key biological aspects of epigenetics and discusses the language, presentation and wider resonance of this field of life science research.
5. Systems Biology and Predictive Neuroscience: A Double Helical Approach
This paper explores the overlap between systems biology and predictive neuroscience, placing them in their larger context, the contemporary trend of bioinformatic “convergence” across the sciences. These two domains overlap with respect to their interest in data-accumulation and data-integration; their reliance on computational statistical correlation; and their translational goals, that is, producing practical fruits and applications from the inter-scientific cross-pollination that contemporary data-integrative approaches make possible. The interventions that such translational conversation generate are medical and social in nature, and are aimed at both prevention (through prediction) and treatment. It will be argued that such approaches, socially and medically applied, contain potential for conveying both agency-enhancing and agency-diminishing social messages. The paper concludes with a call to balance the overwhelmingly quantitative focus characteristic of predictive neuroscience with more qualitative empirical methodologies. This would represent a double-helical approach.
6. Laws of Ecology: Diverse Modes of Abstraction for a Holistic Science
Richard Gunton & Francis Gilbert
The science of ecology is rarely presented in terms of laws of nature, yet there is an ongoing search for quantifiable ecological regularities that allow predictions to be made. Taking this empirical sense of the term “law”, we survey the diverse types of ecological laws that have been proposed by considering different modes of abstraction: numerical, spatial, biotic and others. Numerical analysis of population dynamics has a distinguished pedigree and spatial analysis has been remarkably successful in generating predictive laws under the paradigm of neutral ecology, but we suggest that fully biotic abstraction is better demonstrated by physiological and ecosystem-focused paradigms such as analyses of functional traits and of fluxes of energy and nutrients. It appears that ecological laws become more complex and their predictions less accurate as the level of analysis moves towards what we argue is an authentically biological approach. We thus argue that the holistic character of ecology rests on two claims: that ecological science employs analysis at the highest possible mode of abstraction, and that it fosters the coexistence of paradigms based on different modes of abstraction. The first claim draws upon the logical ordering of modes of abstraction in the aspectual theory of Herman Dooyeweerd. The second claim is strengthened by a holistic view of causation in which scientific laws go no further than describing regularities and suggesting conceptual models for explaining phenomena. These views suggest a number of ways in which the holistic nature of ecology may be enhanced by future research.
7. Supplementing the Neo-Darwinian Paradigm? From Niche-Construction to Cultural Invention
Niels Henrik Gregersen
For most purposes, the Neo-Darwinian paradigm, focusing on the selective transmission of genes responsible for differential adaption, provides the basic foundation for explaining evolutionary processes. At present, there is no reasonable basis for believing that Neo-Darwinian explanations can be replaced by other types of explanation. In current philosophy of biology, however, there are highly controversial discussions on the issue of supplementing the Neo-Darwinian paradigm by other evolutionary drivers of development. One such driver is the self-organisation of physical structures, underlying the formation of biological organism. Another driver is the interface between the individual organisms and groups and their environments. When organism and groups develop, they re-construct their environments by niche-building, thus creating hospitable habitats for future evolution and coevolution. The paper will discuss examples of the added explanatory value of niche-construction for understanding long-term evolutionary processes. If the construction and co-construction of ecological niches persist beyond the life cycle of individual organism, they have an independent explanatory function. Biological explanation, then, neither takes the form of timeless “biological laws”, nor of genetic reductionism. Holistic biology rather suggests a network-view of type-different causes, some explaining particular events, others explaining structural developments. This network-view provides a set of new theological possibilities for speaking of an active presence of God in the world of biology.
In addition, Michael Ruse and Michael Reiss are preparing a co-authored book concerned with philosophical and other issues arising from the project, to be published by Harvard University Press.
The project also contains educational research in which we will examine the effects of innovative school biology lessons taking a more holistic approach, and RE lessons on science and religion. This research is being undertaken through a sub-grant to the UCL Institute of Education.
We have developed a questionnaire on attitudes to science and religion as one of the dependent variables. This containing a range of constructs, including personality traits, motivation in science, the value of science, the importance of science and religion to students’ lives. The present version is at: