What Genes Can't Do

From Basic Bioethics

What Genes Can't Do

By Lenny Moss





The idea of the gene has been a central organizing theme in contemporary biology, and the Human Genome project and biotechnological advances have put the gene in the media spotlight. In this book Lenny Moss reconstructs the history of the gene concept, placing it in the context of the perennial interplay between theories of preformationism and theories of epigenesis. He finds that there are not one, but two, fundamental—and fundamentally different—senses of "the gene" in scientific use—one the heir to preformationism and the other the heir to epigenesis. "Gene-P", the preformationist gene concept, serves as an instrumental predictor of phenotypic outcomes, while "Gene-D", the gene of epigenesis, is a developmental resource that specifies possible amino acid sequences for proteins. Moss argues that the popular idea that genes constitute blueprints for organisms is the result of an unwarranted conflation of these independently valid senses of the gene, and he analyzes the rhetorical basis of this conflation.

In the heart of the book, Moss uses the Gene-D/Gene-P distinction to examine the real basis of biological order and of the pathological loss of order in cancer. He provides a detailed analysis of the "order-from-order" role of cell membranes and compartmentalization and considers dynamic approaches to biological order such as that of Stuart Kauffman. He reviews the history of cancer research with an emphasis on the oncogene and tumor suppressor gene models and shows how these gene-centered strategies point back to the significance of higher level, multi-cellular organizational fields in the onset and progression of cancer. Finally, Moss draws on the findings of the Human Genome Project, biological modularity, and the growing interest in resynthesyzing theories of evolution and development to look beyond the "century of the gene" toward a rebirth of biological understanding.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262134118 256 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 2 illus.


$25.00 X ISBN: 9780262632973 256 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 2 illus.


  • Moss's combination of philosophical, historical and scientific understanding produces a rich and multi-faceted treatment of the gene concept. His vision of the role of the DNA molecule in living systems is challenging and original. And his writing is urgent and immediate, conveying a sense of passionate intellectual engagement with his topic.

    Paul E. Griffiths

    Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh

  • Lenny Moss's book helps us think more realistically about the applications of genetic and cell engineering. It demystifies the role of the genome in determining the properties of living matter and provides a philosophical framework for evaluating the impact of human interventions in heredity. Moss facilitates a sophisticated twenty-first century approach to asking whether we are improving the quality, or fundamentally changing the nature, of life.

    James A. Shapiro

    Professor of Microbiology, University of Chicago

  • This is an interesting, informative, and important work. Moss raises significant questions about the impact of the metaphors we choose to use to aid our understanding of nature. He provides a nice blend of conceptual analysis, rhetorical analysis, and empirical information. And he nicely summarizes the 'phylogentic turn' away from ontogeny. All of this is couched in the context of a 'new naturalism' that weaves together biological and socio-cultural threads.

    Bruce H. Weber

    Professor of Biochemistry, California State University, Fullerton, and Robert H. Woodworth Professor of Science and Natural Philosophy, Bennington College

  • This important book reviews the history that led to the gene-centered orientation of contemporary biology, provides a compelling critique of this perspective, and suggests an alternate, more satisfying approach to understanding biological phenomena. The author's expertise in both philosophy and biology make him uniquely equipped to write this book. No other book presents such a comprehensive history and critique of modern biological thought.

    Robert Perlman

    Department of Pediatrics, University of Chicago, and Editor of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine

  • Lenny Moss breaks up the dominant image of the gene as a magic molecule in which our traits and our fates are written. Moss goes about his iconoclastic work by deploying a unique combination of philosophical analysis, rhetorical criticism, and a profoundly intimate knowledge of cell biology. The result is an important and, I hope, prophetic book.

    David Depew

    University of Iowa

  • Forty years ago it seemed to me that the fledgling field of Artificial Intelligence had taken over from philosophy a mistaken computational/representational model of human being and made it into a research program. Besides setting unrealistic research goals, this misunderstanding was gaining the dignity of a new 'scientific' social self-understanding. What Computers Can't Do was meant to call attention to this problem and suggest a more promising approach. In this important and original book, Lenny Moss draws on his experience as both a molecular cell biologist and a philosopher to criticize—historically, scientifically, and philosophically—our current model of living beings as the product of pre-formed representations embedded in genes. His work provides a perspective from which a new philosophical anthropology can weave together biological and phenomenological insights into a realistic non-reductionist understanding of life and of human being.