Reductionism vs. reductionism

This 2004 essay by an evolutionary biologist reviewed his field’s direction in the current century:

“Science is impelled by two main factors, technological advance and a guiding vision (overview). A properly balanced relationship between the two is key to the successful development of a science.

Without the proper technological advances the road ahead is blocked. Without a guiding vision there is no road ahead; the science becomes an engineering discipline, concerned with temporal practical problems.

Empirical reductionism is in essence methodological; it is simply a mode of analysis, the dissection of a biological entity or system into its constituent parts in order better to understand it. Empirical reductionism makes no assumptions about the fundamental nature, an ultimate understanding, of living things.

Fundamentalist reductionism (the reductionism of 19th century classical physics), on the other hand, is in essence metaphysical. It is ipso facto a statement about the nature of the world: living systems (like all else) can be completely understood in terms of the properties of their constituent parts.

This is a view that flies in the face of what classically trained biologists tended to take for granted, the notion of emergent properties. Whereas emergence seems to be required to explain numerous biological phenomena, fundamentalist reductionism flatly denies its existence: in all cases the whole is no more than the sum of its parts.”

Regarding cellular evolution:

“Modern concepts of cellular evolution are effectively petrified versions of 19th century speculations. Try to imagine a biology released from the intellectual shackles of mechanism, reductionism, and determinism.

Evolution, as a complex dynamic process, will encounter critical points in its course, junctures that result in phase transitions (drastic changes in the character of the system as a whole). Human language is a development that has set Homo sapiens worlds apart from its otherwise very close primate relatives, adding new dimensions to the phase space within which human evolution occurs. Another good critical-point candidate is the advent of (eucaryotic) multicellularity.

Nowhere in thinking about a symbiotic origin of the eucaryotic cell has consideration been given to the fact that the process as envisioned would involve radical change in the designs of the cells involved. You can’t just tear cell designs apart and willy-nilly construct a new type of design from the parts.

The organization of the mitochondrial endosymbiont is radically changed during its evolution, but that change is a degeneration to a far simpler “cell-like” design. The mitochondrial design could never evolve back to the level of complexity that its free-living [bacterial] ancestor had.

A common thread that links language and multicellularity is communication (interaction at a distance). In each case a complex, sophisticated network of interactions forms the medium within which the new level of organization (entities) comes into existence.

Our experience with variation and selection in the modern context does not begin to prepare us for understanding what happened when cellular evolution was in its very early, rough-and-tumble phase(s) of spewing forth novelty. Cellular evolution began in a highly multiplex fashion, from many initial independent ancestral starting points, not just a single one.”

https://mmbr.asm.org/content/68/2/173 “A New Biology for a New Century”


I came across this review by it being referenced in this researcher’s blog post:

Chinese Longevity Herb
I often don’t agree with him, but I subscribe to his blog because it’s interesting.

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The arrogance of a paradigm exceeding its evidence

This 2018 commentary from the American College of Emergency Physicians by 7 physicians discussed the harm that will result from imposing a mandatory paradigm of sepsis treatment. I’ll quote sections that mention evidence:

“These metrics [for pneumonia treatment] had little evidentiary basis but led to an institutional-fostered culture of overdiagnosis and overtreatment. Have we learned from this folly or does a new sepsis guideline promote similar time-based treatment strategies with little direct supporting evidence?

Like the pneumonia quality measure, this resource-heavy care flows from an overreaching interpretation of evidence. Despite that evidence consistently fails to find a benefit of a single treatment strategy, the Surviving Sepsis Campaign continues to promote recommendations that bypass the individual clinician’s judgment.

Although well intentioned, the current sepsis bundles and the potential penalties associated with noncompliance lay a heavy weight on ED [emergency department] care absent evidence that a net benefit will follow. The proposed Surviving Sepsis Campaign abbreviated bundle heightens the burden by further restricting the time allotted for the identification and treatment of patients with suspected sepsis, all without any evidence of benefit or knowledge of the logistic consequences or cost.”


The paradigm’s promoters didn’t learn the appropriate lessons from “the sense of embarrassment and regret once experienced with the pneumonia quality metric.”

What do you think are the root causes of the Surviving Sepsis Campaign’s agenda?

  • Did it start with lawyers? Lawsuits can force hospitals into actions for which the primary reason is to avoid “the potential penalties associated with noncompliance.”
  • Is it due to governments? Governments can force hospitals into actions “without any evidence of benefit or knowledge of the logistic consequences or cost” when the hospitals accept government reimbursement.
  • Did it start with other groups of unaccountable people who think they know better than everyone else about how others should act?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0196064418306073 “The 2018 Surviving Sepsis Campaign’s Treatment Bundle: When Guidelines Outpace the Evidence Supporting Their Use” (not freely available)

Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of ovarian disease

This 2018 Washington rodent study investigated ovarian disease in F3 great-granddaughters caused by their F0 great-grandmothers’ exposures to DDT or vinclozolin while pregnant:

“Two of the most prevalent ovarian diseases affecting women’s fertility and health are Primary Ovarian Insufficiency (POI) and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). POI is characterized by a marked reduction in the primordial follicle pool of oocytes and the induction of menopause prior to age 40. POI currently affects approximately 1% of female population. While genetic causes can be ascribed to a minority of patients, around 90% of POI cases are considered idiopathic, with no apparent genetic link nor known cause.

PCOS is a multi-faceted disease that affects 6-18% of women. It is characterized by infrequent ovulation or anovulation, high androgen levels in the blood, and the presence of multiple persistent ovarian cysts.

For both PCOS and POI other underlying causes such as epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease susceptibility have seldom been considered. Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance is defined as “the germline transmission of epigenetic information and phenotypic change across generations in the absence of any continued direct environmental exposure or genetic manipulation.” Epigenetic factors include DNA methylation, histone modifications, expression of noncoding RNA, RNA methylation, and alterations in chromatin structure.

The majority of transgenerational studies have examined sperm transmission of epigenetic changes due to limitations in oocyte numbers for efficient analysis.

There was no increase in ovarian disease in direct fetal exposed F1 [grandmothers] or germline exposed F2 [mothers] generation vinclozolin or DDT lineage rats compared to controls.

The transgenerational molecular mechanism is distinct and involves the germline (sperm or egg) having an altered epigenome that following fertilization may modify the embryonic stem cells epigenome and transcriptome. This subsequently impacts the epigenetics and transcriptome of all somatic cell types derived from these stem cells.

Therefore, all somatic cells in the transgenerational [F3] animal have altered epigenomes and transcriptomes and those sensitive to this alteration will be susceptible to develop disease. The F3 generation can have disease while the F1 and F2 generations do not, due to this difference in the molecular mechanisms involved.

The epimutations and gene expression differences observed are present in granulosa cells in the late pubertal female rats at 22-24 days of age, which is long before any visible signs of ovarian disease are detectable. This indicates that the underlying factors that can contribute to adult-onset diseases like PCOS and POI appear to be present early in life.

Ancestral exposure to toxicants is a risk factor that must be considered in the molecular etiology of ovarian disease.”


1. The study highlighted a great opportunity for researchers of any disease that frequently has an “idiopathic” diagnosis. It said a lot about research priorities that “around 90% of POI cases are considered idiopathic, with no apparent genetic link nor known cause.”

It isn’t sufficiently explanatory for physicians to continue using categorization terminology from thousands of years ago. Science has progressed enough with measured evidence to discard the “idiopathic” category and express probabilistic understanding of causes.

2. One of this study’s coauthors made a point worth repeating in The imperative of human transgenerational studies: What’s keeping researchers from making a significant difference in their fields with human epigenetic transgenerational inheritance studies?

3. Parts of the study’s Discussion section weren’t supported by its evidence. The study didn’t demonstrate:

  • That “all somatic cells in the transgenerational animal have altered epigenomes and transcriptomes”; and
  • The particular “molecular mechanisms involved” that exactly explain why “the F3 generation can have disease while the F1 and F2 generations do not.”

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15592294.2018.1521223 “Environmental Toxicant Induced Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Ovarian Pathology and Granulosa Cell Epigenome and Transcriptome Alterations: Ancestral Origins of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and Primary Ovarian Insuf[f]iency” (not freely available)

The imperative of human transgenerational studies

The coauthor of:

pointed out the opportunity for the researchers of A seasonal epigenetic effect of conception on BMI to have their work make a difference in their field:

“The ability of environmental epigenetics to promote an adaptive phenotype to cold has impacts on evolution. However, the impacts would be far greater if the phenomenon was transgenerational.

Future studies are now needed to determine whether the cold-induced thrifty metabolic phenotype is transmitted to subsequent generations. If exposure not only impacts the health of offspring, but also of all subsequent generations, the impact is significant.”


Every human alive today has observable lasting epigenetic effects caused by environmental factors:

  • During the earliest parts of our lives;
  • From our parents’ exposures and experiences before we’re conceived – many of which are inadequately researched; and
  • Potentially from some of our earlier ancestors’ exposures and experiences.

Aren’t animal studies’ evidence for epigenetic transgenerational inheritance sufficient to compel serious human follow-on research efforts by research sponsors and study designers? The same comments about epigenetic effects caused by temperature potentially inherited by multiple human generations can also be made about other environmental factors, such as:

  • Nutrition,
  • Toxins – the commentator’s usual area of study, and
  • Stress.

I hope that these researchers value their professions enough to make a difference with this or other areas of their expertise. And that sponsors won’t thwart researchers’ desires for difference-making science by putting them into endless funding queues.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-018-0187-3 “Preconception cold–induced epigenetic inheritance” (not freely available)