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Paul Grobstein's picture

Science, the culture of science, stories, and inquiry

Some thoughts about genes/evolution/science/inquiry, triggered in part by our esem conversations.  See Genes, evolution, science education, and science ...

"In three quite distinct realms of biology - genetics, human evolution, and biomedicine, a similar new story is emerging.

Many generations of genetic studies, biology laboratories, and textbooks later, what has stuck in most peoples' minds is not Mendel's most important and general insights but rather the notion that there is a fairy direct and simple relationship between genes and traits.  What people tend to remember is not what Mendel actually discovered but rather the simplification he made use of to discover it. 

The commonly emerging new story begins to correct this simplification.   The majority of recently evolved human traits seem now to have resulted from selection pressures that affect lots of genes, each making a small contribution to trait change, rather than a small number each making a large contribution.  Laboratory studies of artificial selection in Drosophila are showing the same pattern.  And its beginning to look like human disease susceptibility similarly is in general a trait influenced by many genes rather than a few ...

Science is always done by human beings in a social context ....  This makes science less "objective" than it is often portrayed as being but it also gives it a a social cohesiveness and inertia than contributes significantly to its progress while sometimes also retarding it.   Rather than trying to disguise this and other features of the inherent subjectivity of science as something vaguely shameful, we ought to acknowledge it and its significance (cf Revisiting science in culture and The subjectivity/objectivity spectrum).  And teach about it, so that both we and non-scientists are fully aware of it, and can take it into account in evaluating the significance of scientific understandings ...

My guess is that if you seriously pressed scientists on why they preferred to base research on a presumption that traits reflect small numbers of genes rather than large numbers, the response would be an Occam's razor argument in one form or another: it is "simpler" to account for traits in terms of small numbers of genes and one ought to try out "simpler" explanations before moving on to more complex explanations ...

As both scientists and science educators, we are prone to looking for, and telling, compelling stories, stories that give us simpler ways of making sense of a world that often seems inchoate beyond our understanding and control.  Such stories can be and often are useful within particular contexts, but ought never to be presumed to be universally valid ...

What though seems particularly interesting to me about the story of evolution is that the story itself contains a cautionary note about potential limits of simpler stories ... The story of evolution is not the way to account for the present which in turn makes it possible to predict the future; it is instead a way to make sense of the present which opens new possibilities for conceiving futures. Maybe that's a good way to think not only about evolution but science (and inquiry) in general as well?  Science/inquiry is not simply an observer of a process but also a contributor to it,  in ways that open new possibilities but will always have somewhat unpredictable future consequences as well?   Maybe we should should make this point clearer not only in teaching about evolution but science and inquiry in general."

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