John Dupré reviews Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology by Alex Rosenberg, in American Scientist:
Alex Rosenberg is unusual among philosophers of biology in adhering to the view that everything occurs in accordance with universal laws, and that adequate explanations must appeal to the laws that brought about the thing explained. He also believes that everything is ultimately determined by what happens at the physical level—and that this entails that the mind is “nothing but” the brain. For an adherent of this brand of physicalism, it is fairly evident that if there are laws at “higher” levels—laws of biology, psychology or social science—they are either deductive consequences of the laws of physics or they are not true. Hence Rosenberg is committed to the classical reductionism that aims to explain phenomena at all levels by appeal to the physical.
It is worth mentioning that, as Rosenberg explains, these views are generally assumed by contemporary philosophers of biology to be discredited. The reductionism that they reject, he says,
holds that there is a full and complete explanation of every biological fact, state, event, process, trend, or generalization, and that this explanation will cite only the interaction of macromolecules to provide this explanation.
Such views have been in decline since the 1970s, when David Hull (The Philosophy of Biological Science ) pointed out that the relationship between genetic and phenotypic facts was, at best, “many/many”: Genes had effects on numerous phenotypic features, and phenotypic features were affected by many genes. A number of philosophers have elaborated on such difficulties in subsequent decades.
The question then is whether Rosenberg’s latest book, Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology, constitutes a useful attack on a dogmatic orthodoxy or merely represents a failure to understand why the views of an earlier generation of philosophers of science have been abandoned.