Tekhnema 3 / "A Touch of Memory" / Spring 1996

Drafts for a Metaphysics of the Gene

Howard Caygill

These drafts from a work in progress on the metaphysics of the gene explore the theme of the “touch of memory” from a number of aspects.  They propose an analysis of contemporary culture in which the locus of heritage is figured in terms of “the gene,” but suggest that the latter figures less as a biochemical than as a metaphysical expression.  While there is indubitably an elective affinity between the science of genetics and metaphysics, the latter dominates the popular science of genetics prevalent, or virulent, in contemporary genetic culture.  The latter is described in Nietzschean terms as a “nihilistic” culture insofar as it replaces Christianity as a “Platonism for the masses” with “popular science.”

The culture of popular science veers between the inverse nihilistic extremes of naturalism and idealism, a movement figured in representations of “the gene.” The gene, first definitively named as such in 1909 by Johannsen, is simultaneously an intelligible unit of “information”—part of a digitalization of Platonism inaugurated by Leibniz—and a part of physical nature subject to chance and natural selection.  This instability within the gene—whether it is to be understood idealistically or naturalistically—also contributes to the fear of genes prevalent in genetic culture.  This is at once a fear of the manipulation of the intelligible gene by science reaching the limit of the abolition of nature and the flesh in the totally genetically engineered species of human being as well as a fear of the uncontrollable consequences of genetic interventions in some future test of “fitness” in natural selection.  Neither the fear of the abolition of chance in a technical order of necessity, nor the fear of the revenge of chance against the same order have any real basis in the science, but have assumed considerable weight in the culture of genetics. 

The following five drafts explore the dilemmas posed by genetic culture through a number of reflections informed by the writings of Plato and Nietzsche, for some the first and the last metaphysician.  In the first—The Slave Revolt of Popular Science—Nietzsche’s claim that Platonism survived the proclamation of the “death of God” in the shape of “faith in science” is interpreted as the emergence of a nihilistic, post-Christian culture of metaphysical “popular science.” The second—The Expulsion of the Physicians—inquires into Plato’s view of the future Priests of genetic culture, namely the physicians, seemingly expelled, with the artists, from the Republic.  The third reflection—Chance, Necessity and Techne—explores the role played by techne in Plato’s overcoming of the tragic play of chance and necessity, while the fourth—Digital Platonism —begins to draw out the Platonic paradigm informing the science of genetics.  The final reflection—The Nihilism of Genetic Culture—speculates on the metaphysical refraction of the science in genetic culture, and some of the implications this has had for the experience of birth, embodiment and death.  The possibility of another rebirth of tragedy is also raised here, and left open.



The Slave-Revolt of Popular Science

Certain ingenious lots, then, I suppose, must be devised so that the inferior man at each conjugation may blame chance and not the rulers.

Yes indeed, he said.

Plato, The Republic V, 460

Book V of The Gay Science, published in the second edition of 1887 after Also Sprach Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil begins in §343 with a reflection on the proclamation of the “death of God.” The madman of §125 proclaimed this event in the market place, and called for “festivals of atonement” to create the humanity capable of living with the responsibility of this deed.  In Book V Nietzsche returns to this proclamation and reflects on what it must entail: the change of trust into distrust, the collapse of faith in morality, and the “monstrous logic of terror” which will unfold in an impending “plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin and cataclysm.” In spite of this gloomy prophesy Nietzsche still finds cause for cheerfulness, affirming the horizon which is opened by the death of God.  The shadows of the dead God that engulfed the madman have now given way to “a new and scarcely describable kind of light” which promises a future open to chance and unimaginable expectations. 

The affirmative analysis of “The meaning of our cheerfulness” in the face of the death of God is followed in §344 by an analysis of the negative, reactive response to the death of God.  The reactive response takes the form of faith in science or the development of a metaphysical scientific culture in the place of Christian culture.  Such a culture is “still pious” in that it rests upon a faith in truth and a trust in mistrust.  Such “faith in science” substitutes itself for faith in God, and draws out the ultimate consequence of this faith which is not only an “hostility to life” but a “concealed will to death.” The proclamation of death of the Christian God was perhaps premature, for God takes a long time to die.  Instead of the “festivals of atonement” “there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown” (§108).

Such a cave is represented by the popular culture of science, one which translates science into a moralistic metaphysics.  Nietzsche sees the “faith in science” which defines the modern, post-Christian culture of “popular science” as resting upon a “metaphysical faith’.’ This governs even the work of the most “godless anti-metaphysicians” who still take their fire “from a flame that is lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith that was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine” (§344).  The faith in science is more than a principle informing the work of scientists, it is the founding principle of a culture which believes in science, in the efficacy of scientific solutions to questions of life and death.

The post-Christian culture which is governed by metaphysical faith in science, that trusts science, is for Nietzsche another version of a Platonic culture: metaphysics, he writes in §347, “today discharges itself among large numbers of people in a scientific-positivistic form.” The interest in the development of metaphysical popular cultures informs much of Nietzsche’s authorship.  His early work from the late 1860s on the impact of philosophy upon the formation of a popular culture culminated in his view of the struggle in late antiquity between the popular cultures of Platonism and Epicureanism.  The former was victorious in the shape of Christianity as “Platonism for the masses.” For Nietzsche such popular Platonism represented a slave revolt of the masses against an Epicurean Imperial aristocracy, a revolt whose members negated the world and fantasized a blissful future based on the punishment of the powerful.  The “death of God” does not necessarily entail the end of the slave-revolt of morals, but its move into a new and crueler phase of its history.  The modern culture of science for Nietzsche rests on the same faith, the same affirmation of the “other world” and the negation of its counterpart “this world, our world.”

The slave-revolt of popular science takes up the flame dropped by Christianity, but turns it upon this world.  The faith in science looks to science not only for guidance as to who is to be saved and who is to be damned in the next world, but also in this world.  The world of “life, nature, and history” is now subject to a metaphysical and moralistic discipline far more rigorous than that ever imagined by the most dedicated inquisitor.  Faith in science and its attendant moralism can now justify who is to live and who is to die; indeed, with scientific culture the slaves achieve power, and wield it with a vengeance.

The ambiguous consequences of the “death of God”—a liberation from Platonism or its intensification in popular science—inform Nietzsche’s work above all.  We too are still too pious—we too, the Godless anti-metaphysicians are Platonists in imagining that we possess the light to lead others out of the shadows of the cave, “we still have to vanquish his shadow” (§108).  The ambiguity is expressed most clearly in contrast between the third in the sequence of aphorisms opening Book V and the contemporary Preface to the second edition of The Gay Science.  After the cheerfulness of the affirmation of the death of God, and the diagnosis of the nihilism of faith in science follows an analysis of the revenge of the weak in §345 “Morality as a Problem.” Morality is born of revenge, even if it dissembles its origins in the guise of science, and in particular the science of medicine.

Nietzsche describes morality as “the most famous of all medicines” and proposes to question it as such, that is to question both morality and medicine.  This however, sits uneasily with his call in the Preface for a “philosophical physician” “who has to pursue the problem of the total health of a people, time, race, or of humanity” (Preface §3).  The philosopher physicians are not in a position to question the metaphysics and morality of popular science since their power depends on this faith.  The philosopher physician indeed seems to represent the dictatorship of the slave revolt of popular science, its executive arm. 

In “Morality as a Problem” Nietzsche claims disingenuously that “nobody up to now has examined the value of the most famous of all medicines which is called morality.” However, precisely this questioning was one of the constant preoccupations of Plato, who arrived at a similar result to Nietzsche.  In the Republic the legislator appears in the guise of the philosophical physician, but only after having been expelled with the artists.  However, it also becomes apparent in the Republic that the philosophical physician possesses in addition the ability of the artist to dissemble reality, to “devise certain ingenious lots,” which in the name of science and techne, execute the legislation of who may be born and who must die. 


The Expulsion of the Physicians


But what have you to say to this, Socrates? Must we not have good physicians in our city?

Plato, Republic III, 408


It is often forgotten that the artists were not the only ones to be expelled from Plato’s Republic—they were joined by the physicians.  Yet in Republic III 407-9 the physicians are expelled only to return in the guise of the legislator.  The philosophical physician is precisely the one who will legislate, but only after having been expelled as physician.  The philosophical physician will create a new techne of medicine which will combine justice and medicine in the care of the body and the soul. 

The artists are expelled from the city for practicing an imitative art; the physicians for practicing an art that supplements nature.  It is the ambiguous quality of medicine between art and nature that gives it the uncanny quality of cheating chance and the necessity of nature.  Socrates cites Pindar’s description of Asclepius, the God of healing, being struck by lightning for healing a man on the point of death, thus cheating the necessity of nature.  Furthermore, the physician achieves this perverse end by applying knowledge to the body—Asclepius is the son Apollo and healed both through knowledge and through the laying on of hands.  For these reasons the physicians must be expelled with the artists as chimerical creators of chimeras.

Socrates continues the case against the physicians by arguing that their skill combines knowledge of “the principles of the art” and a familiarity with “the greatest possible number of the most sickly bodies” (III 408e).  What is more, a good physician for Socrates would have to experience illness in order to have sufficient knowledge to treat it.  Yet this experience would be that they could not cure by touch, since their bodies would be corrupt, nor could they treat the body with the mind since “it is not competent for a mind that is or has been evil to treat anything well.” What is required is a philosophical physician who has been trained from childhood to philosophize, and who possesses the idea of justice and virtue.  Such a philosopher physician would be able to combine health and justice in the Republic.

The expulsion of the physicians as chimerical is succeeded by their return as Guardians.  Indeed, it is precisely their ability to overcome chance and necessity by means of techne that qualifies them for the task of legislation.  The latter is the supreme techne but is now applied not in the case of the life and death of an individual, but with respect to the life and death of the Republic.  Socrates accordingly calls for the establishment by law of “an art of medicine” which is in conjunction with justice.  In the Republic the philosopher physician will combine the arts of medicine and legislation to ensure the life of the Republic against the attrition of chance and necessity.  This will require them to apportion life and death: “these arts will care for the bodies and souls of such of your citizens as are truly well-born, but those who are not, such as are defective in body, they will suffer to die, and those who are evil-natured and incurable in soul they will themselves put to death” (III 410a).  The philosopher physicians’ care for the total health of the Republic requires them to decide who will die and who will be born, according to the knowledge of the just and the possession of the techne sufficient to execute this knowledge.

The Platonic fusion of knowledge and techne in the philosopher physician may be understood as an answer to the question of tragedy.  The latter concerns the limits of human action and skill in the face of chance and necessity.  The philosopher’s knowledge of the true and the just, and the physicians possession of the techne required to cheat nature combine to produce the legislator, or precursor of Nietzsche’s philosophical physician.  Yet the legislator who would overcome tragedy must also be an artist, able to dissemble the legislation and make the art of legislation appear as an aspect of necessity.  Ultimately, Plato brings together knowledge, techne and art in a comprehensive overcoming of tragedy, a fusion which is subsequently both welcomed and refused by Nietzsche.  However, the latter left open the question of the place of tragedy in the modern metaphysical culture of popular science, whether it be confined to art or whether it could find a place within the prevailing “faith in science.”



Chance, Necessity and Techne


Then destiny and its own inborn urge took control of the world again and reversed the revolution of it.

Plato, Statesman 272e


The intertwining of chance and necessity which drove the action of tragedy continued to haunt Plato in spite of his attempt to resolve the tragic condition by means of techne.  In tragedy the attempt to master fate through techne provoked collision and catastrophe while in Plato there emerges the promise that fate can be mastered through knowledge and skillful action.  This promise remains haunted by the possibility of hubris—that the techne of the philosopher-physician is always qualified, whether by the absolute master necessity, or by chance.  Indeed, Plato’s attempt to smother tragedy initiates a classically tragic predicament in which the technical alleviations of chance and necessity defer only to intensify the tragic crisis.

In Books IV and X of the Laws, “The Athenian” compasses the entirety of Being—past present and future—within the limits of chance, necessity and techne.  This predicament of being is presented most clearly in X 888e, where techne is placed between the necessity of nature and chance:

we are told, you know, that whatever which comes, has come, or will come into existence is a product either of nature [phusei], or of chance [tuche], or of art [techne].  (X 888e)

Techne is thus exercised within the tragic predicament of necessity and chance, and yet the estimation of its capability is far from unambiguous.  Across Books IV and X techne is at once capable of arresting the catastrophic play of chance and necessity while remaining ineluctably subject to its rhythms.  At stake in this indecision surrounding techne is the very possibility of a legislator, especially a legislator such as the one proposed in the Republic in the guise of the physician. 

In Book IV of the Laws (709a-c) Plato has the Athenian speculate on the threat to legislation posed by chance: “I was on the brink of saying that man never legislates at all; our legislation is the work of chance and infinitely various circumstance” (709a).  Innovations may be forced on us by disease or environmental conditions, provoking the thought that “no law is ever made by a man, and that human history is all an affair of chance” (709b).  Such a view of chance converts it into its opposite, necessity, since “God is all, while chance and circumstance, under God, set the whole course of life for us” (709c); chance, in other words, becomes the law or “ultimate legislator” subjecting on occasion even the Gods.  Plato then introduces a third element into this play of opposites: “Yet we must allow for the presence of a third and more amenable partner, techne” (709c).  The exercise of the third is apparent not only in legislation, but also in “seafaring, navigation, medicine or strategy”(709b) which is the knowledge of contingency, or, the same thing, the knowledge of how to propitiate necessity, namely “what form of fortune to pray for” (709d).  Here hechne seems able to overcome the tragic predicament of chance and necessity, offering the possibility of orientation and eventually propitiation.

In Book X “The Athenian” ironically entertains the position that techne is feeble before chance and necessity, maintaining that “all the grandest and fairest of things are products of nature and chance, and only the more insignificant of techne” (889a).  There follows a reprise of the argument from the Republic against mimetic art, those “certain toys” such as painting and music which only imitate nature and are “as perishable as their creators” (889d).  To these may be added the productive arts such as medicine, husbandry, gymnastics, and perhaps statesmanship which “lend their aid to nature” but which are nevertheless subject to it.  In the final analysis even these are “unreal” because, like their makers, they are subject to death, unlike chance and necessity which preside over life and death.

The limits to techne drawn by chance and necessity legislate even over legislation, which is but a techne.  It may lend its aid to nature, but will eventually succumb to it.  The limits drawn by chance and necessity thus point to the finitude of techne, and corrode its appearance of invincibility.  They also leave in question its claim to have solved the tragic question—the Platonic fusion of knowledge and technique itself yields to tragedy, and the project of deciding who is to live and who to die collapses in hubris.  Perhaps this is the destiny of the metaphysical culture of popular science which succeeded the death of God, and which in the shape of genetics has restated the Platonic attempt to inaugurate a legislation based upon the knowledge and techne of the philosopher physician. 


Digital Platonism


And having been created in this way, the world has been framed in the likeness of that which is apprehended by reason and mind and is unchangeable, and must therefore of necessity, if this be admitted, be a copy of something.

Plato, Timaeus 29a


The play of chance and necessity takes on its modern form in the language of evolutionary biology and genetics.  The tension between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s study of variation crystallized in the late nineteenth century in the attempt to reconcile the chance of mutation (the source of variants in a population) with the necessity of selection (the elimination of some variants).  The biometric analysis of this tension by Galton, Weismann and de Vries was pursued and taken a step further by the Danish biologist and philo-sopher Wilhelm Ludwig Johannsen.  It was he who introduced metaphysical concepts into population genetics, and by doing so forged a vocabulary and structure of research which persists in contemporary genetics, even though functionally the science of genetics has developed beyond its confines.  It is his metaphysical concepts however which continue to structure the popular science of genetics.

Johannsen’s achievement was to transform population genetics and its purely quantitative, functional classifications of variability into qualities and substances.  Functional terms for description of variation (itself an index of the play of chance and necessity) such as “fluctuation,” “continuous” and “discontinuous” magnitudes were converted into qualities.  This search for metaphysical causes underlying described regularities was owned by Johannsen by his citation of Goethe at the end of his 1903 Über Erblichkeit in Populationen und in reinen Linien (Heredity in Populations and Pure Lines: A Contribution to the Solution of Outstanding Questions in Selection):

Dich in Unendlichen zu finden

Musst unterscheiden und dann




To find yourself in the eternal

You must first separate

and then rebind. 

From the observation of variation in populations Johannsen discerned the presence of a Typus or pure line, a discovery which pointed to a distinction between hereditary (necessary) and non-hereditary (chance) variation.  In the final pages of his 1903 work, Johannsen cited a number of attempts to give substance to the regularity in variation, whether “determinant” (Galton), “hereditary corpuscle,” “hereditary particle” or “pangene” (de Vries).  Mendel himself had used the term Merkmal or unit character to describe such regularity, but left it metaphysically undetermined.  Johannsen too used a functional term drawn from accounting—Rechnungseinheit—unit of account, but attempted to give it substance.

This was definitively achieved with the invention of the term “gene” in the 1909 Elemente der exakten Erblichkeitslehre (Jena) (Elements of an Exact Doctrine of Heredity).  This work was extremely successful (three editions up to 1926) and is accepted to have been the most influential textbook in genetics, giving a vocabulary and structure to the science which was adopted by genetic scientists of the early decades of the century, and bequeathed to their successors.  The Elements move from population genetics to a metaphysics of the gene, not simply in the sense of giving the gene substance, but also situating it within an extremely well-defined Platonic context of argument.  The most significant is the distinction between genotype and phenotype with the former denoting the totality of genes that inform an organism and the latter how these are manifest in the appearance and actions of the organism.  This Platonic distinction remains widely accepted in the science of genetics, and universally acknowledged in the popular science of genetic culture.

Part of the explanation for the persuasive power of Johannsen’s terminology was its combination of biometrics and philosophy.  The distinction of genotype and phenotype clarified a number of issues in genetics, and opened a field for further investigation of the aetiology of variation.  Many of the results of this research have now outlived their original Platonic paradigm, but this has persisted as the framework for the presentation of popular genetics and the experience of its truth.  The genotype, as substance, has become the truth of the phenotypical appearance of the body and of its actions (also evident in the distinction between germ line and somatic cell interventions).  The ideal truth of the gene is the source of necessity, which is then assailed by chance at the level of phenotypical characteristics. 

Such a metaphysics of the gene has the potential to become the source of a new legislation—with philosopher physicians intervening in the name of a genotypical truth.  With the extension of the range of the genotype by sociobiology to include even such phenotypical actions as economic, sexual and criminal behavior, the Platonic dream of uniting biology and justice begins to seem feasible.  However, this is precisely a Platonic dream, one which seeks to control the play of chance and necessity (variability) by means of knowledge and techne.  The result of this new Platonic idol following the death of God may be a new, resentful dictatorship of popular science, which ignores the genetic scientists arguments for the value of geno-and phenotypical diversity and uses the Platonic elements of their science to once again make the selection.


The Nihilism of Genetic Culture


When this has been determined, the whole citizen body must do public sacrifice to the destinies and the entire pantheon at large, and consecrate each hymn to its respective god or other patron by solemn libation.

Plato, Laws VII, 799b


One of the extraordinary features of the Christian culture which Nietzsche saw as having been replaced by a culture of popular science was its underdeveloped conception of techne.  While it was certainly the heir to the Platonic distinction of real and apparent worlds, it did develop a sophisticated technology of legislation, or rather, of revenge.  Its sacramental and liturgical machinery offered a technology of salvation and damnation which, accompanied by the development of disciplines of the soul, convincingly offered a cure for anxiety in the face of chance and necessity.  This structure encompassed both the chance of birth and the necessity of death by creating a sacramental economy of reward and punishment which alleviated anxiety.  However, the death of God and the twilight of this structure created a form of hyper-platonism in which knowledge, techne and legislation reunite in a nihilistic culture which has difficulty in recognizing the sources of its own anxiety.

The anxiety characteristic of this culture is one of ambivalence before the imagined ambition to overcome chance and necessity by techne.  There is on the one hand the anxiety that genetic technology will abolish chance and with it spontaneity; that the manipulation of the genotype will produce true human beings who no longer possess the capacity for self-creation through mutation.  On the other hand, however, precisely this ability to technologically control the genotype itself becomes a source of anxiety, since it raises the spectre of the return of necessity in the shape of a future selection.  Purified of its capacity to mutate, humanity might find itself unfit to meet a future selection.  These projections are not themselves scientific, but effects of the metaphysical and moralistic discourse of popular science which both desires and fears the philosopher physicians, the genetic technologist intervening in the name of health and justice. 

The nihilism of genetic culture, what Nietzsche would see as the desire for death located in refusal to accept the limits of chance and necessity, is now played out at the level of techne.  It is the issue of the technical working through of the metaphysical truth of the gene which provides the source of cultural anxiety.  For precisely this reason it is difficult to see how Christianity, with its underdeveloped conception of techne can provide the necessary “festivals of atonement.” Perhaps for this reason a reinvention of tragedy is now a possibility, for tragedy possesses a strong conception of techne, and of its limits.  The Platonic festival of the overcoming of the limits of chance and necessity in techne may give way to the rebirth of concepts of hubris, fate, and destiny through the limits of knowledge, and techne may be recognized and once again mourned and celebrated.