I just finished reading an interesting paper by J. Scott Turner from the Department of Environmental & Forest Biology, SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry (Extended Phenotypes and Extended Organisms. Biology and Philosophy 19: 327–352, 2004). Turner raises several arguments that I find to be quite friendly to the Design Matrix. But what stood out the most was this:
The gene’s special nature derives not from its ability to encode function, or to replicate, or to accumulate mutations, but from its longevity as a determinant of future functional environments. Put simply, of all the multifarious influences that could be brought to bear on the specifiers of a living environment, the information encoded in genes simply outlasts any others (Figure 8). Specifiers and epigenetic effects on them come and go. Genes endure and evolve.
When you consider all the debates about genes and function, what has been missing is consideration of this special property of all genes – their longevity as a determinant of future functional environments. Genes, which can be considered a core component of life’s internal architecture, are perfectly suited to carry out the function of evolution. And even if it is the case the geochemistry ultimately spawned genes, this fact would force us to consider that geochemistry did not come up with an alternative for genes. There are no living things that exist without genes.
But it gets better.
Turner also notes:
It has been said that the essence of the Darwinian revolution was the banishment of typological thinking from biology, and its replacement by populations as the only proper venues in which to think about evolution and its subsidiary questions – what species are, whence they come, how they evolve. This essentially Neoatomist approach to evolution, indeed to biology in general, has been extraordinarily successful, evidenced by biology’s extraordinary transformation through the twentieth century. Left largely unanswered, though, has been an important question: populations of what? Organisms? Cells? Ecosystems? Molecules? Genes? In 1978, the answer seemed reasonably clear – it was the “atoms of heredity” – genes – that were at the heart of it all. For a host of reasons, some alluded to briefly above, that answer is no longer so clear.
Perhaps the time is now ripe for another rethink of biology’s philosophical underpinnings, liberating the gene from being simply an atom of heredity, and putting it in its proper place as one of several arbiters of the suites of physiological transactions that organisms comprise (Laland and Odling-Smee et al. 1996; Odling-Smee and Laland et al. 1996; Laland and Odling-Smee et al. 1999). Integrating evolution and physiology in this way would involve reintroducing a sense of purposefulness to our thinking about evolution. Purpose has been, of course, forbidden intellectual territory for some time, presumably because it steers us dangerously close to the Platonic teleology that Darwinism has rightly put aside. Nevertheless, organisms are, if nothing else, purposeful creatures, and failure to acknowledge this frankly steers us in other dangerous directions. The important questions are: how are organisms purposeful, and how does the purposefulness work? To the physiologist, the purposefulness of organisms is embodied in the phenomenon of homeostasis, which is tantamount to the forward reach in time of physiological function. Natural selection is simply the emergence of living systems that extend their purposeful reach farther into the future than others. Inevitably, they reach toward states of homeostasis, propelled there by agents of homeostasis that can operate over many scales of both time and space. A gene, then, is not simply a device for encoding a function, or an atom of heredity, but a means of imposing a degree of predictability on future flows of mass and energy through living systems. The key to an encompassing theory of evolution that unites Darwinian selection, Mendelian inheritance and physiological homeostasis requires the frank embrace of the future, and the goals that lie there.
Let me ask you simple question, dear reader. Does this sound like something that challenges my views or echoes my views?