Beyond reductionism and emergence: study of the epistemic practices in gene expression research

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A central task for historians and philosophers of science is to characterize and analyze the epistemic practices in a given science. The epistemic practice of a science includes its explanatory

A central task for historians and philosophers of science is to characterize and analyze the epistemic practices in a given science. The epistemic practice of a science includes its explanatory goals as well as the methods used to achieve these goals. This dissertation addresses the epistemic practices in gene expression research spanning the mid-twentieth century to the twenty-first century. The critical evaluation of the standard historical narratives of the molecular life sciences clarifies certain philosophical problems with respect to reduction, emergence, and representation, and offers new ways with which to think about the development of scientific research and the nature of scientific change.

The first chapter revisits some of the key experiments that contributed to the development of the repression model of genetic regulation in the lac operon and concludes that the early research on gene expression and genetic regulation depict an iterative and integrative process, which was neither reductionist nor holist. In doing so, it challenges a common application of a conceptual framework in the history of biology and offers an alternative framework. The second chapter argues that the concept of emergence in the history and philosophy of biology is too ambiguous to account for the current research in post-genomic molecular biology and it is often erroneously used to argue against some reductionist theses. The third chapter investigates the use of network representations of gene expression in developmental evolution research and takes up some of the conceptual and methodological problems it has generated. The concluding comments present potential avenues for future research arising from each substantial chapter.

In sum, this dissertation argues that the epistemic practices of gene expression research are an iterative and integrative process, which produces theoretical representations of the complex interactions in gene expression as networks. Moreover, conceptualizing these interactions as networks constrains empirical research strategies by the limited number of ways in which gene expression can be controlled through general rules of network interactions. Making these strategies explicit helps to clarify how they can explain the dynamic and adaptive features of genomes.