International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-R515
Organized session / standard talks
Beyond “informationism” and machine models: Radically rethinking the physical basis of living systems

Lenny Moss** (University of Exeter, United Kingdom)

Could molecular biology have been a mistake? Are the avatars of ‘The New Mechanism” barking up a dead tree? Drawing upon aspects of biophysics, biochemistry and theoretical biology, this session will critically assess the shortcomings of ‘informationist’ and ‘mechanical’ models in meeting current challenges in the life sciences and suggest some radical alternatives. The meaning and place of ‘reductionist’ methods will also be addressed in this context as will the idea of ‘top-down’ causation. Newman's paper will make a case for the role of ‘generic’ physical processes in morphogenesis, and the inapplicability of cybernetic approaches to biology. Moss's paper will focus more specifically on the ubiquitous roles of aqueous chemistry including hydrogen bonding, the transfer of hydrogen atoms as well as protons, and the role of “hydrophobic hydration” in constituting the organisational and functional conditions of any living system.

A renewed physicalism for organismic biology?

Sahotra Sarkar (University of Texas at Austin, United States)

In recent decades philosophical work in biology has veered between two extreme agendas. The first is one that presumes concepts and techniques borrowed from the philosophy of mind are of relevance to biological research. (An example is the use of arguably dubious teleosemantic analyses in attemps to explicate a concept of biological information.) The second, which is embraced by this paper, presumes that biological systems must be understood in continuity with physical systems, that is, apparently unique biological features are expressions of physical consituents and interactions that do not distinguish between animate and inanimate matter and have no irreducible intrinsic teleology between them. This "new physicalism" has typically been expounded as some form of reductionism. After motivating the physicalist agenda for biology, this paper turns to the varieties of reductionism and develops one in which a carefully explicated mereology becomes central to epistemological projects. The paper then turns to the recent excitement about the new mechanism. It points out that what is valuable in it has long been embraced by this form of reductionism and was central to debates between mechanists and emergentism in the 1920s and 1930s. More controversially, it argues that the rest of the new mechanism embraces a metaphysically naive realism about the status of mechanisms which are not only typically left ill-defined but also misses the crucial insight (due to the logical empiricists) that the same system can be multiply (and inconsistently) decomposed into groups of mechanisms for different explanatory projects. Finally the paper ends by noting the complex conceptual relations between the new physicalism and various forms of emergentism.

Evolution of development was empedoclean, not cybernetic

Stuart Newman (New York Medical College, United States)

Present-day animal embryos derive from ancient cell clusters that exhibited forms and patterns based on their material properties. For example, the clusters assumed multilayered, hollow, segmented, elongated and appendage-bearing configurations depending on conditional physical effects mobilized by the resident genes and the resulting interactions among the cells, and between the cells and the external environment. Over time, the loosely organized morphological motifs of phenotypically plastic pre-metazoans were compounded into integrated, reliably generated wholes by entry into “satisficing” (as per Herbert Simon) ecological niches and relationships. This view, which is similar to that advanced by Empedocles of Agrigentum 2500 years ago, is more consistent with experimental and paleontological evidence than that of standard evolutionary theory, in which machine-like, gene-controlled developmental programs were built up in a gradual fashion by stringent adaptive regimes, with morphological complexity only achieved after numerous selection cycles. These points will be illustrated by examples of discontinuous change and discordances between genes and form in animal development and evolution.