PUBLIC TALK: Shakespearean Ontogeny
|Shakespearean Ontogeny : Public talk with Dr. Richard Paul Hamilton
There is a popular view of biological development which goes something like this. Biological form is the cumulative result of internal genetic forces and external environmental ones. Like all models in biology this rather neat view had the advantage of allowing researchers to navigate a path through the bewildering complexity of organic life. But like all metaphors it comes at the price of bewitchment. As Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations 115: “a picture held us captive and we could not escape it because it lay in our language”. One consequence of this bewitchment is that explanatory privilege was given to the internal 'code' enshrined in the DNA, a view most famously (or notoriously) associated with Richard Dawkins' gene-centric account of evolution. This apparently resolved a number of outstanding puzzles in theoretical biology notably the transmission of stable form across generations.
In this context, the Human Genome Project can be seen as the most fruitful failure in scientific history. Such a claim may seem puzzling, since the Human Genome Project might be considered a success, not least in the numerous promising advances in medicine that it presaged. Nevertheless, the somewhat hyperbolic claim that it would finally unlock the secret code which would reveal what it means to be human have been largely unfulfilled and with good reason. There never was such a code.
The last two decades in the biological sciences can be characterised by the slogan: Taking Development Seriously. Whereas the neo-Darwinian mathematical modellers tended to treat the actual process of development as a black box, a sustained effort is now underway to explain the relationship between evolution (phylogeny) and organismic development (ontogeny). One thing has become clear: the simple dichotomous picture of gene and environment is inadequate, even as a simplifying device. DNA rarely exists in isolation and where it does it is inert. There is no reason to give DNA causal or explanatory privilege in developmental processes. Rather, development is a complex and contingent process in which the developing organism constructs itself and to some extent its developmental environment from the resources at hand. The organism makes its own history albeit not in circumstances of its choosing.
If the code metaphor is no longer adequate what can replace it? In this talk I will suggest a new and hopefully fruitful analogy which might capture some of the complexities involved. I will compare the process of biological development to the construction of a Shakespearean play. As Shakespeare scholars have long known there are no definitive Shakespeare texts and it seems likely that Shakespeare never actually sat down and wrote Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing. Rather the plays were workshopped and Shakespeare provided prompt notes to the players. The texts with which we are familiar are re-constructions of performances which have been handed down corrected and interpreted through numerous generations. Most crucially every new performance of Shakespeare is an interpretation be it a group of Lesbian players doing in Hamlet in Soweto or an 'authentic Elizabethan dress' performance at the Globe in London. Moreover, every performance takes place in a rich and complex interpretative environment and the audience plays as much a role in the play's construction as the author or players.
Similarly, all the natural world is a stage, or so I shall argue.
Dr. Richard Paul Hamilton completed a PhD on love as a social phenomenon, under the supervision of Professors Susan James and Jennifer Hornsby at Birkbeck College, The University of London. He works on moral philosophy, the philosophy of the emotions, the philosophy of action and the philosophy of social sciences with particular interests in the legal definition of morally contested concepts. His most recent publications have dealt with evolutionary psychology and love as an essentially contested concept. He is currently engaged in a project investigating the biological bases of moral conduct. Before arriving at Notre Dame, he taught at the University of Manchester, the University of Leeds and Manchester Metropolitan University.
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