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

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-R525
Organized session / standard talks
Robustness and emergence

Marta Bertolaso (Università Campus Bio-Medico, Italy); Silvia Caianiello (Instituto per la storia del pensiero filosophico e scientifico moderno, Italy)

Robustness, the ability of a system to maintain its functions despite external and internal perturbations, is nowadays a key-concept in the study of biological systems. This property has in fact become the major “conceptual and theoretical bridge” (Csete Doyle 2002) linking sophisticated systems engineering and systems biology, both committed to a non-reductionist view of the dynamics of complex systems structured by (engineered or evolved) functional optimization. However, the epistemological and ontological implications of the robustness perspective on biological systems are still in need of further clarification. Main questions to be addressed: - On what kind of regulatory dynamics does biological robustness rely? - How should higher-level robustness be understood in causal terms? - How far can robustness be considered an emergent property? - Which is the relationship between self-organization and robustness? - How has robustness evolved?

Emergence and robustness: Explainable novelty

Sandra D. Mitchell (University of Pittsburgh, United States)

The options for strategies of explanation, prediction and intervention have often been presented as a mutually exclusive dichotomy: emergence or reduction, predictability or non-predictability. Robustness in evolved, complex biological systems exposes the poverty of this contrast. Protein function, for example, includes both predictable and unpredictable effects and explanations appeal necessarily to both lower-level and higher-level properties, as well as to causal factors in the often unexplicated context. As emergence has become a legitimate scientific category it has dropped the strictly epistemic characterization of “that which cannot be explained/predicted” to an ontological understanding of types of stable, higher-level properties that are explainable by the integration of top-down and bottom-up causal inferences.

Robustness and novelty: Contradictions or complementary features of complex systems

Manfred Laubichler (Arizona State University, United States); Guido Caniglia (Arizona State University, United States)

Where does novelty come from? The ability to innovate (i.e., to generate novel features or behaviors) is a defining characteristic of complex systems. Biological, technological, socioeconomic, political and cultural transformations all presuppose that at some point in time “novelties” occur. The big theoretical question is: Are there commonalities in the underlying processes generating novelty across domains? This talk will explore this question in the context of similar discussions about robustness, often seen as an antithesis to innovation. It will sketch a theoretical framework that (a) ascertains whether the putative commonalities in the origins of novelty in the biological and social domains help explain innovation in a way that goes beyond the metaphorical; (b) elucidates how a “theory of the origins of novelty” (or a less ambitious but still general explanatory framework) would advance an understanding of biological evolution, cultural evolution and technological change; and (c) identifies specific questions whose answer could advance the construction of a general framework for understanding the origins of novelty.

Robustness as organized heterogeneity

Marta Bertolaso (Università Campus Bio-Medico, Italy); Silvia Caianiello (Instituto per la storia del pensiero filosophico e scientifico moderno, Italy)

Robustness is currently one of the most powerful cross-disciplinary concepts relating both living and engineering systems and their shared design principles. We investigate the status of biological robustness at the organismal level as an emergent property, for which specific topological properties of regulatory networks are a necessary, but not sufficient condition of possibility. Paradigmatic for this discussion is the biology of cancer, in which many of the conditions for organismal robustness are disrupted, in such a way that a different kind of robustness, the one of cancer, seems to take its place. Cancer, in fact, enacts the disruption of the hierarchical regulatory control of the biological organization, whose outcome is the high degree of phenotypic heterogeneity of tumor cells. The outcome of such disruption is the uncoupling of cell proliferation and differentiation, which accounts for the failure of the veritable systemic control at the organismal level. The substantial difference between the “unorganized heterogeneity” exhibited by cancer cells and the “organized dynamic functional heterogeneity” of healthy organisms lays therefore in the impairment of the dynamics of co-determination that characterizes the relational ontology of levels in healthy organisms, a dynamics which involves different types of causality and ensures the robustness of macrostates of functional integration. Understanding regulatory dynamics in relational terms, i.e. in terms of relationships among elements that are epistemologically and ontologically dependent on their context, offers the conceptual tools to contrast the pathological robustness of cancer with the veritable robustness that allows biological systems to orchestrate stability and novelty in face of perturbations.