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Barbara, Osimani (2014): Causing something to be one way rather than another: Genetic information, causal specificity and the relevance of linear order. In: Kybernetes, Vol. 43, No. 6: pp. 865-881
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Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to suggest a definition of genetic information by taking into account the debate surrounding it. Particularly, the objections raised by Developmental Systems Theory (Griffiths, 2001; Oyama 1985; Griffiths and Knight 1998) to Teleosemantic endorsements of the notion of genetic information (Sterelny et al. 1996; Maynard Smith, 2000; Jablonka, 2002) as well as deflationist approaches which suggest to ascribe the notion of genetic information a heuristic value at most, and to reduce it to that of causality (Godfrey-Smith, 2000; Boniolo, 2003, 2008). Design/methodology/approach – The paper presents the notion of genetic information through its historical evolution and analyses it with the conceptual tools offered by philosophical theories of causation on one side (“causation as influence,” Woodward, 2010; Waters, 2007; Lewis, 2000) and linguistics on the other (“double articulation” Martinet, 1960). Findings – The concept of genetic information is defined as a special kind of cause which causes something to be one way rather than another, by combining elementary units one way rather than another. Tested against the notion of “genetic error” this definition demonstrates to provide an exhaustive account of the common denominators associated with the notion of genetic information: causal specificity; combinatorial mechanism; arbitrariness. Originality/value – The definition clarifies how the notion of information is understood when applied to genetic phenomena and also contributes to the debate on the notion of information, broadly meant, which is still affected by lack of consensus (Floridi, 2013).