A Third Way to the Selected Effect/Causal Role Distinction in the Great Encode Debate

Theoretical Biology Forum 2023 (1-2):53-74 (2023)
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Since the ENCODE project published its final results in a series of articles in 2012, there is no consensus on what its implications are. ENCODE’s central and most controversial claim was that there is essentially no junk DNA: most sections of the human genome believed to be «junk» are functional. This claim was met with many reservations. If researchers disagree about whether there is junk DNA, they have first to agree on a concept of function and how function, given a particular definition, can be discovered. The ENCODE debate centered on a notion of function that assumes a strong dichotomy between evolutionary and non-evolutionary function and causes, prevalent in the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. In contrast to how the debate is typically portrayed, both sides share a commitment to this distinction. This distinction is, however, much debated in alternative approaches to evolutionary theory, such as the EES. We show that because the ENCODE debate is grounded in a particular notion of function, it is unclear how it connects to broader debates about what is the correct evolutionary frame- work. Furthermore, we show how arguments brought forward in the controversy, particularly arguments from mathematical population genetics, are deeply embedded in their particular disciplinary contexts, and reflect substantive assumptions about the evolution of genomes. With this article, we aim to provide an anatomy of the ENCODE debate that offers a new perspective on the notions of function both sides employed, as well as to situate the ENCODE debate within wider debates regarding the forces operating in evolution.

Author Profiles

Ehud Lamm
Tel Aviv University
Sophie Veigl
University of Vienna


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