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Genetics. 2011 Aug;188(4):761-71. doi: 10.1534/genetics.111.131318.

Is life law-like?

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Department of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, USA.


Genes are generally assumed to be primary biological causes of biological phenotypes and their evolution. In just over a century, a research agenda that has built on Mendel's experiments and on Darwin's theory of natural selection as a law of nature has had unprecedented scientific success in isolating and characterizing many aspects of genetic causation. We revel in these successes, and yet the story is not quite so simple. The complex cooperative nature of genetic architecture and its evolution include teasingly tractable components, but much remains elusive. The proliferation of data generated in our "omics" age raises the question of whether we even have (or need) a unified theory or "law" of life, or even clear standards of inference by which to answer the question. If not, this not only has implications for the widely promulgated belief that we will soon be able to predict phenotypes like disease risk from genes, but also speaks to the limitations in the underlying science itself. Much of life seems to be characterized by ad hoc, ephemeral, contextual probabilism without proper underlying distributions. To the extent that this is true, causal effects are not asymptotically predictable, and new ways of understanding life may be required.

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