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Development, Culture, and the Units of Inheritance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2022

James Griesemer*
University of California, Davis
Send requests for reprints to the author, Department of Philosophy, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616-8673.


Developmental systems theory (DST) expands the unit of replication from genes to whole systems of developmental resources, which DST interprets in terms of cycling developmental processes. Expansion seems required by DST's argument against privileging genes in evolutionary and developmental explanations of organic traits. DST and the expanded replicator brook no distinction between biological and cultural evolution. However, by endorsing a single expanded unit of inheritance and leaving the classical molecular notion of gene intact, DST achieves only a nominal reunification of heredity and development. I argue that an alternative conceptualization of inheritance denies the classical opposition of genetics and development while avoiding the singularity inherent in the replicator concept. It also yields a new unit—the reproducer—which genuinely integrates genetic and developmental perspectives. The reproducer concept articulates the non-separability of “genetic” and “developmental” roles in units of heredity, development, and evolution. DST reformulated in terms of reproducers rather than replicators preserves an empirically interesting distinction between cultural and biological evolution.

Philosophy of Biology, Psychology, and Neuroscience
Copyright © 2000 by the Philosophy of Science Association

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This work germinated during fellowships at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (1992–93) and Collegium Budapest (1994–95). I thank the Rektors and Fellows and the respective Biology Group Conveners, Peter Hammerstein, and Eörs Szathmáry. This work would not have been done without the interest and support of Leo Buss, Eva Jablonka, Evelyn Fox Keller, Ross Kiester, and Eörs Szathmáry. I thank Peter Godfrey-Smith for organizing the symposium and audiences in Berlin, Chicago, Duke, Jerusalem, Northwestern, and San Diego. I thank especially my former colleague Michael Dietrich for many helpful discussions and Connie, Ellen, and Kate for their support. Financial support of USDA Cooperative Agreement PNW 95–0768 and UC Davis Faculty Research Grants is gratefully acknowledged.


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