Reductionism and Genetic Determinism

One of the themes that runs through much of the intersection of philosophy of biology and bioethics is the question of reductionism and its most criticized form, genetic determinism. To what extent is behavior and character dictated by genes? Popular images in magazines hype genes as the new Rosetta stone, the key to unlocking who and what people are (Nelkin and Lindee). Many biologists have defended the view that genes are the primary determinants of key traits (Hamer; Koshland).

Philosophically there are multiple meanings of reduc-tionism that can be distinguished. There is theory reduc-tionism in which theories at one level are explained by other theories that are seen as more fundamental. Recent philosophy of science has moved away from traditional views about theories, requiring alternative accounts of formal reductionism that looks at models and mechanisms (Sarkar). Reductionism can be epistemological in character—it can be about what provides the epistemological force to claims at different levels. So, for example, the force of rules in psychology could be dependent on the force of genetic rules that would explain the rules in psychology. Ontological reductionism would claim in one way or another that the only real entities are those at lower levels. Ultimately, the ideal reductionist picture would show the unity of science—behavioral accounts can be reduced to population genetics, population genetics can be reduced to molecular genetics, molecular genetics reduced to chemistry, and chemistry to physics. The only real entities are the entities posited by physics.

There have been many criticisms of reductionism (Sarkar; Moss; Kaplan; Lewontin; Keller; Kitcher). These have ranged from technical difficulties with reducing theories from biology to other levels (the only plausible laws in Mendelian genetics are not only false, transmission genetics is a measure of the degree of falsity of the law of independent assortment) to criticisms of specific popular reductions which purport to demonstrate the fundamental importance of genes as the determinants of human characteristics. Reductionism (especially the popular version) is largely a promissory note, one that the critics show is virtually impossible to pay off.

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