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Darwinian Reductionism

Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology

After the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, scientists working in molecular biology embraced reductionism—the theory that all complex systems can be understood in terms of their components. Reductionism, however, has been widely resisted by both nonmolecular biologists and scientists working outside the field of biology. Many of these antireductionists, nevertheless, embrace the notion of physicalism—the idea that all biological processes are physical in nature. How, Alexander Rosenberg asks, can these self-proclaimed physicalists also be antireductionists?

With clarity and wit, Darwinian Reductionism navigates this difficult and seemingly intractable dualism with convincing analysis and timely evidence. In the spirit of the few distinguished biologists who accept reductionism—E. O. Wilson, Francis Crick, Jacques Monod, James Watson, and Richard Dawkins—Rosenberg provides a philosophically sophisticated defense of reductionism and applies it to molecular developmental biology and the theory of natural selection, ultimately proving that the physicalist must also be a reductionist.

Reviews

“For most philosophers, reductionism is wrong because it denies the fact of multiple realizability. For most biologists, reductionism is wrong because it involves a commitment to genetic determinism. In this stimulating new book, Rosenberg reconfigures the problem. His Darwinian reductionism denies genetic determinism and it has no problem with multiple realizability. It captures what scientific materialism should have been after all along.”

Elliot Sober, University of Wisconsin

“Over the last twenty years and more, philosophers and theoretical biologists have built an antireductionist consensus about biology. We have thought that biology is autonomous without being spooky. While biological systems are built from chemical ones, biological facts are not just physical facts, and biological explanations cannot be replaced by physical and chemical ones. The most consistent, articulate, informed, and lucid skeptic about this view has been Alex Rosenberg, and Darwinian Reductionism is the mature synthesis of his alternative vision. He argues that we can show the paradigm facts of biology—evolution and development—are built from the chemical and physical, and reduce to them. Moreover, he argues, unpleasantly plausibly, that defenders of the consensus must slip one way or the other: into spookiness about the biological, or into a reduction program for the biological. People like me have no middle way. Bugger.”

Kim Sterelny, author of Sex and Death

“Alex Rosenberg has been thinking about reductionism in biology for a quarter of a century. His latest discussion is many-sided, informed, and informative—and extremely challenging.”

Philip Kitcher, Columbia University

"Rosenberg provides an accessible review of current ideas on the ’wiring’ of . . . gene complexes and why they help account for morphological evolution. He is one of the first philosophers to conside the implications of ’evo-devo’ . . . and seizes the opportunity to promote a reductionist interpretation that was simply not possible with population genetics."

Bruce H. Weber | Nature

"Rosenberg’s book tackles very difficult issues in the philosophy of biology in subtle and innovative ways."

Edward M. Engelmann | Review of Metaphysics

Table of Contents

Preface
Introduction: Biology’s Untenable Dualism
1. What Was Reductionism?
2. Reductionism and Developmental Molecular Biology
3. Are There Really Informational Genes and Developmental Programs?
4. Dobzhansky’s Dictum and the Nature of Biological Explanation
5. Central Tendencies and Individual Organisms
6. Making Natural Selection Safe for Reductionists
7. Genomics, Human History, and Cooperation
8. How Darwinian Reductionism Refutes Genetic Determinism
References
Index

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