Journal Article

Inherited Representations are Read in Development

Nicholas Shea

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 64, issue 1, pages 1-31
Published in print March 2013 | ISSN: 0007-0882
Published online February 2012 | e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI:

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Recent theoretical work has identified a tightly constrained sense in which genes carry representational content. Representational properties of the genome are founded in the transmission of DNA over phylogenetic time and its role in natural selection. However, genetic representation is not just relevant to questions of selection and evolution. This article goes beyond existing treatments and argues for the heterodox view that information generated by a process of selection over phylogenetic time can be read in ontogenetic time, in the course of individual development. Recent results in evolutionary biology, drawn both from modelling work, and from experimental and observational data, support a role for genetic representation in explaining individual ontogeny: both genetic representations and environmental information are read by the mechanisms of development, in an individual, so as to lead to adaptive phenotypes. Furthermore, in some cases there appears to have been selection between individuals that rely to different degrees on the two sources of information. Thus, the theory of representation in inheritance systems like the genome is much more than just a coherent reconstruction of information talk in biology. Genetic representation is a property with considerable explanatory utility.


2Inherited Representations

3Reading Genetic Representations

  3.1Do genes carry correlational information?

4Selection Between Genetic and Environmental Information


  4.2Empirical applications

  4.3Maternal effects

5Genetic Representation and the Genome

  5.1Information capacity of organisms' genomes

  5.2Many amino acids, few nucleotides

  5.3A function of sex

6Explaining Further Aspects of Development

  6.1Canalization against environmental variation

  6.2An informational function for the nuclear membrane?


Journal Article.  11664 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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