Darwin’s legacy II: why biology is not physics, or why it has taken a century to see the dependence of genes on the environment Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • Genes and environment make the organism. Darwin stood firm in his denial of any direct role of environment in the modification of heredity. His theory of evolution heralded two debates: one about the importance and adequacy of natural selection as the main mechanism of evolution, and the other about the role of genes versus environment in the modification of phenotype and evolution. Here, I provide an overview of the second debate and show that the reasons for the gene versus environment battle were twofold: first, there was confusion about the role of environment in modifying the inheritance of a trait versus the evolution of that trait, and second, there was misunderstanding about the meaning of environment and its interaction with genes in the production of phenotypes. It took nearly a century to see that environment does not directly affect the inheritance of a phenotype (i.e., its heredity), but it is nevertheless the primary mover of phenotypic evolution. Effects of genes and environment are not separate but interdependent. One cannot separate the effect of genes from that of environment, or nature from nurture. To answer the question posed in the title, it is partly because the 20th century has been a century of unending progress in genetics. But also because unlike physics, biology is not colorblind; progress in biology has often been delayed beyond the Kuhnian paradigm change due to built-in interest in negating the influence of environment. Those who are against evolution, of course, cannot be expected to understand the role of environment in evolution. Those for it, many biologists included, believing in the supremacy of genes empowers them by giving adaptation a solely gene-directed (self-driven) "teleological" interpretation.

publication date

  • January 2015