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

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FRIDAY, JULY 10  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M220
Individual papers
Fitness, modeling, and medicine

Stochastic gene expression and fitness

Thomas Heams (AgroParisTech, INRA, France)

Stochastic gene expression (SGE) is not only a background noise, but a constitutive parameter of all living beings. It challenges the view of adaptative evolution at the molecular level as a fine-tuned process of precise regulations in multicellular organisms. It has been described as a source of flexibility, of intercellular synchronization, and a potential driver of gene evolution. Additionally, experimental evidences can lead to encompass transcriptional stochasticity as a component of darwinian-like chance/selection processes in clonal cell populations. This has several consequences relative to evolutionary studies. First, intercellular relations might be described in terms of short-term adaptations relying on variable and/or unpredictable cellular behaviors in homogeneous environments. Here, macroscopic (tissue, organ) reproducibility would result from variations/selection of elementary (cellular, intracellular) events, ranging from simple statistical reproducibility to internal constraints that would dynamically stabilize individual cells in an adapted state. This would expand darwinian dynamics within organism. Consequently, this would be an additional level of selection. In the context of recent debates about group selection, such endodarwian dynamics could challenge the fact that in the multi-level theory, evolutionary transitions from one level to another rely on the loss of competitive interactions at the lower level. Thus, how SGE would unify (and therefore strengthen) the theory in life sciences or generate interferences between levels (and possibly weaken it) needs investigation in the context of a extended evolutionary synthesis. An orthogonal issue is how SGE relates with classical deterministic pathways. Models are needed to describe how selective pressures can take advantage of either flexibility or reliability of cellular events. Finally, SGE occurs alongside other sources of somatic variations leading to cellular heterogeneity whether they are due to genetic, epigenetic, and expression factors. The actual relation between these mechanisms and SGE, from synergy to competition, is a promising field for evolutionary studies.

Looping effects in the case of medical empathy

Riana Betzler (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom)

Empathy has become a subject of much public interest lately and is viewed as a highly valuable capacity across various domains of culture and society. In this paper, I discuss how the valuation of empathy (1) interacts with conceptual confusion surrounding what empathy is and (2) may facilitate changes in behaviour — such that we see “looping effects,” in Ian Hacking’s (1995) sense of the term. It affects our understanding of what empathy is as well as how it operates. I illustrate how these looping effects occur by looking at the case of medical empathy in particular. Contemporary literature on clinical practice carries the assumption that empathy amongst clinicians is a good thing, that it facilitates the clinician-patient interaction, and that it promotes healing (Pedersen, 2009). However, this was not always the case; from the 1950s-80s, it was thought that an attitude of “detached concern” was needed in a clinical context (Halpern, 2001). These changing values have stimulated reflection on what it means to be empathic in particular contexts, raising questions about whether definitions of empathy coming from empirical psychology are useful in clinical practice. They have also influenced the way that medical education proceeds; medical students today are taught to cultivate empathy—a very particular form of empathy—and this changes the way that they behave in their interaction with patients.

Consider the mosquito

Dylan Gault (Laurentian University, Canada)

One of the counterintuitive aspects of the fight against malaria is that, to successfully rid humans of this disease, we may have to consider, and even promote, the health of mosquitoes. This is of interest as it conflicts with what we assume is the common value judgment regarding the mosquito: most people view mosquitoes as a nuisance and devoid of value. Even the literature on malaria uses the language of mosquitoes as a ‘vector’, and as a more-or-less passive element of the environment. This risks missing the important active biology and ecology of mosquitoes. The most obvious example of this is the failure of DDT to rid the world, other than North America, of those mosquitoes that transmit malaria: the evolutionarily adaptive biology of the mosquito was able to produce populations resistant to the pesticide. A subtler example of this bias may manifest in the failure of some malaria researchers to account for, and possibly take advantage of, the fact that there exist mosquitoes that are themselves naturally resistant to malaria, even though this resistance was a significant problem for researchers seeking to breed mosquitoes to study malaria in laboratories. Even work on the genetic modification of mosquitoes seems to see biological agency as resting in the hands of humans, not mosquitoes. However, some research on the possibility of making genetic modifications to mosquitoes shows that successful modifications must not only fight malaria, but must also increase the fitness of certain mosquito populations. Thus, the future of fighting malaria may lie in considering the health of mosquitoes and in promoting that health. This presentation argues that we should take the history of malaria and mosquitoes as a warning of the possibility that our value judgments about the biology we study may be an impediment to our own practical progress.