International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-1420
Organized session / diverse format
Transmission and inheritance

Antonine Nicoglou (LabEx "Who am I?", France); Francesca Merlin (IHPST/ Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France); Alexandre Peluffo (LabEx, France); Olivier Putois (LabEx “Who Am I?”, France)


Antonine Nicoglou (LabEx "Who am I?", France)
Francesca Merlin (IHPST/ Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France)
Alexandre Peluffo (LabEx, France)
Olivier Putois (LabEx “Who Am I?”, France)

The purpose of the present symposium is to offer a redefinition of the “nature/culture” distinction – and, at a more technical level, of the contours of the “nature-nurture debate.” How are complex factors – psychological, behavioral or morphological traits, sometimes based on a ‘cultural’ and/or ‘parental’ environment transmitted, if not through the genes? In this session, we will examine the issue of an “extended” transmission of some traits, offering discussions on how early mechanisms of development – at the biological, psychological, cultural or symbolic level – could either associate or either oppose nature and nurture. Human sciences in general – including psychoanalysis – have often emphasized the relative autonomy of nurture (to put it quickly, the level of human interactions and sociality), and its importance for the determination of adult traits. For this reason, a gap often separates human sciences from biological sciences (e.g., neurosciences and evolutionary psychology) – which, in turn, insist on the “nature” of transmission. Therefore, the following question arises: does the promotion, in biology, of epigenetic mechanisms – or even non-genetic mechanisms – of inheritance require to go beyond (or at least to re-articulate in depth), the nature/nurture opposition, in order to adopt a concept of heredity which would integrate nurture? Or should we rather adopt a more “conservative” concept of heredity by restricting its use to the level of “nature”, defined by its difference with “cultural” modes of transmission?

More specifically, such an issue will lead us, in the context of an interaction between biologists, philosophers and psychoanalysts, to address the modalities, timings and access points of nurture, and thus to look at the ways in which the notion of transmission is conceived throughout the disciplines.

Time-scales analysis as a way to distinguish transmission mechanisms from inheritance
Francesca Merlin & Livio Riboli Sasco
Recent proposals to redefine biological inheritance all come to suggest an extended concept which applies to traditional genetic mechanisms of inheritance as well as to different forms of non-genetic transmission, from epigenetic mechanisms to ecological and cultural ones. Our project is to take a step back with respect to the issue of the extension of inheritance. Rather than listing types of inheritances and their directions (to descendants or within generations, for example), we want to put into the fore the question of time-scales as regard the transmission of genetic and non-genetic factors. In particular, we will zoom out these processes at evolutionary time scales. Our aim is to show that a closer look at the mechanisms and pathways of transmission (e.g., passing through a bottleneck or not), combined with an analysis of the relationship between short term and long term transmission time-scales – measured in terms of number of generations – of genetic and non-genetic factors, allows to better understand evolutionary and adaptive dynamics. Moreover, this approach is fruitful in order to map among different organisms like bacteria, plants, and animals the relevant differences in modalities, or strategies, of both transmission and inheritance. A graphical representation of these different modalities and their deployment over time helps us to show more vividly that there are relevant discontinuities among what contemporary biologists and philosophers of biology put under the name of “extended inheritance”.

Distinction of the timings of development: A way to characterize inheritance?
Antonine Nicoglou
It has become clear that knowing ‘how much’ of the genetic part (population studies) is linked to the disease is not tantamount to knowing ‘how’ (comprehension of the etiopathogenic process) a specific disease occurs. The distinction here is the same as the one in biology between the “genetic contribution to variation” and “contribution to the cause” – and thus to the development – of the trait. Such opposition is linked to the debate among theoreticians about inheritance where the major input of inheritance for evolution mainly concerns the former whereas the major input of inheritance for development concerns the latter. In this regard, the analysis of apparently “simple” genetic diseases revealed complex patterns of inheritance (Wagner 1999) and individuals with the same genotype at a specific locus might be affected to a quite different extent (Lewontin 2001). In this presentation, I will focus on developmental process. My hypothesis is that by comparing different timings of development within developmental process (i.e., the different morphogenetic stages but also the different kinds of phenomena of periodization), one can also compare different types of inheritance for development. Indeed, if one sees inheritance as the process of realization of a pattern of resemblance rather than the pattern of resemblance itself, inheritance might be conceived as a complex system including different time-scales. Therefore, by comparing different time periods of development, one can also compare different time-scales of inheritance and this might have a consequence for evolutionary explanation. For instance, environment may have more influence at certain time periods of development than at others time periods (e.g. canalization, plasticity). The final purpose of this approach will be to investigate if and how these types of inheritance for development might also be relevant to evolution – contrary to the traditional view that assumes that only genetic inheritance is important.

Finding genes: What does it mean and how can we do it? An illustration using an ongoing research project in genetics
Alexandre Peluffo
For more than a hundred years, there has been a debate over what genes are. At his Nobel lecture in 1933, Thomas Morgan said that it did not really matter for the geneticist. This seems to be the point of view adopted by many biologists. However, the concept of gene has evolved and diversified across the many fields that make up modern biology (Griffiths and Stotz, 2013). Therfore, what are genes can be an important question in the recent discussion about the definition of inheritance and its potential extension. Using my research as a geneticist in the field of Evo-Devo, I will show that current methods “to find genes” in biological research are based on different hypothesis of what a gene is. Hypothesis which do not only rely on experimental facts, but on epistemological heritage of each field, historical grounds and philosophical positions. After introducing some of the main methods in genetics today, such as QTL mapping, site specific mutagenesis and next-generation sequencing, I will show that these methods rely on different historical and philosophical grounds and lead to different kind of « genes. » This implies that philosophical and historical conceptions of genes are crucial to current research in biology.

How does early psychological development articulate inheritance and transmission? When psychoanalysis meets epigenetic models
Olivier Putois
In his recent mapping of the various disciplinary fields which have drawn on Waddington-inspired modeling (esp. the “epigenetic landscape”), Baedke (2013) rapidly mentions psychology – and focuses mostly on the dynamic systems approach to human development. But within psychology, a psychodynamic/psychoanalytic trend (starting with Spitz [1959]) has explicitly relied on a waddingtonian modeling of psychological development in order to describe, in a morphogenetic fashion, the emergence of the psyche (or mind) in the course of the early nurturing individual-environment interactions. In this presentation, I will (1) sketch out a contemporary Waddington-inspired psychoanalytic model of the interactional emergence of the psyche, which will also draw on clinical material; and (2) indicate how this model of early-life development articulates the level of intergenerational, reproduction-based inheritance (what is “innate”) and that of interactional transmission. I thus want to stress how such modeling can help make sense of Freud’s boldest claims as to the biological articulation between ontogeny and phylogeny – these claims thus appear far from being an obsolete part of psychoanalysis, as some have claimed (Laplanche).