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What are genes? What do genes do? These questions are not simple and straightforward to answer; at the same time, simplistic answers are quite prevalent and are taken for granted. This book aims to explain the origin of the gene concept, its various meanings both within and outside science, as well as to debunk the intuitive view of the existence of 'genes for' characteristics and disease. Drawing on contemporary research in genetics and genomics, as well as on ideas from history of science, philosophy of science, psychology and science education, it explains what genes are and what they can and cannot do. By presenting complex concepts and research in a comprehensible and rigorous manner, it examines the potential impact of research in genetics and genomics and how important genes actually are for our lives. Understanding Genes is an accessible and engaging introduction to genes for any interested reader.
Contemporary evolutionary theory emerged historically in a Christian religious context. Therefore, in this book I focus on the contrast of evolutionary theory with notions of creation and design in nature within the Christian worldview. Predominant in this case has been the argument from design. According to this argument, if nature seems to exhibit design, it is because it is God’s creation. Therefore, this design stands as evidence for his existence. A well-known argument of this kind was developed in detail by William Paley, who believed that the complexity and perfection of the natural world, documented by its empirical study, were the most powerful arguments for the existence of God. Paley lived at a time when empiricist philosophers, such as David Hume, had expressed skeptical arguments about this. Hume considered, for instance, that the imperfections that existed in nature did not comply with the idea of design. But Paley argued to the contrary, and tried to show that the existence of God could be confirmed based on the study of nature.
In the everyday use of the word, to adapt means to make something suitable for a new use or to adjust it to new conditions. Accordingly, adaptation may refer to the process of adapting something or of being adapted. A characteristic that is the outcome of such a process might also be called an adaptation. Thus, based on these definitions and on everyday experience, one could infer that biological adaptation is the process by which populations become better suited to their environment, which might consequently mean that some of their characteristics change and become suitable for new roles. These new characteristics might be called adaptations as well. Therefore, adaptation can be defined both as a process and as a feature, and indeed these are the uses of the term in evolutionary biology. In both cases, adaptation refers to the positive contribution that a characteristic makes to the survival and reproduction of its possessors (usually described as fitness). Whereas different definitions of adaptation as a process exist, they do not significantly differ from one another. Overall, adaptation has been defined as an evolutionary process for which natural selection seems to be an important factor; the differences among the various definitions have to do with how important natural selection is.
Our knowledge and understanding take the form of concepts that are mental representations of the world. Scientific concepts have important representational and heuristic roles in the acquisition and justification of scientific knowledge because they both represent natural entities, properties, and processes, and also make their investigation possible. Concepts should be distinguished from conceptions, the latter being the different meanings of, or meanings associated with, particular concepts. From our early childhood we experientially formulate conceptions of the world that are described as preconceptions. As we grow up, we often assimilate knowledge that further modifies our preconceptions, occasionally turning them into more complex but incorrect conceptions, which are described as misconceptions. Conceptual change is the change of our preconceptions with development and learning; however, that people may restructure or reorganize their conceptions when they acquire new knowledge does not guarantee an accurate understanding of concepts. For conceptual change to occur, individuals must be guided to realize that their prior conceptions are wrong or explanatorily insufficient.
What is evolution? The term might refer either to the fact that species have changed over the course of eons, or to the process by which this change has taken place, resulting in their exquisite adaptations and their outstandingly common features. All organisms are related to one another because they have descended from a common ancestor through natural processes that have produced new life forms from preexisting ones. It is important to note that evolution has been taking place on Earth for billions of years. Consequently, although it is still taking place now, much of the information about it comes from the past. Evolutionary scientists do not have a direct view of the past, but they can infer past events from what they currently observe. Overall, there is ample evidence for evolution in fossils, anatomy, biogeography, and DNA.
So, we now have a book on philosophy of science written for biologists, which contains topics that its editors (both of them biologists) thought would be useful. Whereas we hope that many biologists will read it and reflect on philosophy of science, this is not the only role we envisaged for this book. We also believe that the book could be used in courses for biology undergraduates and graduates. It could be used in a course on philosophy of science, or as a supplement to a biology-focused course that would at the same time aim to promote philosophical reflection among participants. In either case, what is important for anyone who would use this book for teaching purposes is that the contributors to the present book have highlighted some major themes to be discussed.
The two central ideas of evolutionary theory are (1) that all organisms – both those currently living and those that have ever lived on Earth – are related through descent from common ancestors; and (2) that they have evolved or died out through natural processes. Simply put, evolutionary theory suggests that we are part of this world; we are one biological species among numerous others, with which we are more or less related, having diverged from our common ancestors over time. However, many people do not accept these ideas. They think that if we accept that we are animals, we are devalued and human morality is threatened. They also think that if we accept that life has no inherent purpose, this deprives it of meaning. For these people, evolutionary theory is a rather nihilistic idea, and this is where many of them see the conflict between evolutionary theory and religion. This conflict is also perceived by those proponents of evolutionary theory who are irreligious or atheists, and who also think that evolutionary theory has been the death blow of religion.
Why do the debates about evolution persist, despite the plentiful evidence for it? Breaking down the notion that public resistance to evolution is strictly due to its perceived conflict with religion, this concise book shows that evolution is in fact a counterintuitive idea that is difficult to understand. Kostas Kampourakis, an experienced science educator, takes an insightful, interdisciplinary approach, providing an introduction to evolutionary theory written with clarity and thoughtful reasoning. Topics discussed include evolution in the public sphere, evolution and religion, the conceptual obstacles to understanding evolution, the development of Darwin's theory, the most important evolutionary concepts, as well as evolution and the nature of science. Understanding Evolution presents evolutionary theory with a lucidity and vision that readers will quickly appreciate, and is intended for anyone wanting an accessible and concise guide to evolution.
Many people have heard of Charles Darwin (Figure 4.1) and his book On the Origin of Species (hereafter Origin). But I am not very confident that all those people who have something to say about Darwin’s book (both proponents and opponents) have actually read it. The Origin was written by Darwin as an abstract of his species theory for a general audience. It is written with clarity, and it is full of insight and evidence for evolution. Reading the book also provides one with reflections of the particular political, cultural, social, religious, and scientific contexts in which Darwin’s theory was developed and published. Darwin was a man of science; his aim was to convince his readers about natural selection as the process of transmutation (this is how the emergence of a species from a preexisting one was called at the time, whereas the word “evolution” referred to progress and development).
To many biologists, science and philosophy may appear an odd couple without much in common. Perhaps the word “philosophy” will even bring to mind endless arguments and speculation about whether the chicken or the egg came first, without ever getting anywhere. After all, are philosophers not still arguing over the same things as Aristotle and his fellow Greeks? Well, yes. But biologists too are concerned with the questions that occupied Aristotle: what living beings are and where they come from; how they develop, function, and interact with one another; and why there are so many forms and how those forms should be classified. There has been tremendous progress in biology, of course. But it does not appear that biologists will ever run out of questions. This is because good science does not only reveal new things about the world; it also reveals that there are things we did not even know we could know. So we want to know more.