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Molecular biology and natural philosophy, with special reference to Jacques Monod

Barns, Ian (1982) Molecular biology and natural philosophy, with special reference to Jacques Monod. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis explores the problematic relationship between contemporary science and humanistic culture through an analysis of molecular biology and the ’natural philosophy’ of selected biologists. A contextualist model of science is developed as a means of exploring the wider social meanings of the discipline, interpreting its natural philosophy or meta-theoretical assumptions and statements as an integral part of scientific practice. Molecular biology, both as a specialty within modern genetics and as a broader development in biology as a whole, has elaborated a sophisticated 'systemic’ reductionist approach to biology which is more powerful than an older ’atomistic’ reductionism in the analysis of complex biological While this systems. reductionist view of life has its roots in a humanist cultural tradition, its continued development appears to re-inforce the technocratic tendencies of modern industrial society.

The cultural dilemmas inherent in the development of reductionist biology are examined with special reference to the research programme and natural philosophy of the French molecular biologist Jacques Monod. Monod’s research career was an important contribution to the ’systemic’ reductionism of molecular biology, and also to the modernisation of the structures of French science and the establishment of closer links with the emerging ’scientific state’. Yet Monod himself viewed science as a humanistic cultural activity. His natural philosophy was an attempt to legitimate the intellectual and social reconstruction of French science whilst at the same time preserving its essentially cultural nature.

Monod’s natural philosophy is analysed in two parts. The first examines his attempt to resolve the tensions between scientific knowledge and human values in terms of the 'ethic of objective knowledge'. The second examines his general theory of living systems and his interpretation of modern evolutionary theory in terms of 'chance and necessity'. Although Monod appeared to be a dogmatic scientific materialist, a closer analysis reveals that he held an essentially idealist and Platonic view of the world. The ambiguities in his central concept of 'objective knowledge' and his biological essentialism prevented Monod from dealing effectively with the cultural dilemmas raised by the new reductionism and the industrialisation of modern science.

The natural philosophy of several of Monod's colleagues: Francis Crick, Salvadore Luria, Joshua Lederberg, Francois Jacob, Max Delbruck and Gunther Stent is also examined. Despite their differences on some issues these biologists shared a common commitment to a liberal humanist social vision and to the reductionist paradigm in biological research. Like Monod, they failed to resolve the dilemmas inherent in the development of the reductionist paradigm. The thesis concludes with a brief discussion of the further development of the reductionist paradigm and its application to the human domain by E.O. Wilson, the search for alternative paradigms by Chargaff, Waddington and Birch, and a consideration of the sources of human values in the light of the reductionist view of life and Christian theism.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Inquiry
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Roby, Keith and Hooper, John
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