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

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-1540
Organized session / diverse format
Physical Science Approaches to Organismal Development

Alan Love (University of Minnesota, United States); William C. Wimsatt (University of Minnesota, United States)


Karl Niklas (Cornell University, United States)
Robert Batterman (University of Pittsburgh, United States)
Alan Love (University of Minnesota, United States)
Francois Fagotto (McGill University, Canada)

Developmental biology investigates how a variety of interacting processes generate the heterogeneous shapes, size, and structural features of an organism as it develops from embryo to adult. The primary explanatory approach has been genetic, with a special emphasis on how features internal to the developing embryo make a difference or contribute to the morphological features of the organism (e.g., cell-cell signaling and transcriptional regulation). In recent years there has been a growing interest in elucidating how physical factors (e.g., mechanical forces) play a causal role in ontogeny. Since explanations deriving from physical science remain in the minority among developmental biologists, this session aims is to better understand these physical science approaches, the conceptual challenges they pose to extant genetic explanations, and the prospects for integrating approaches to achieve a deeper comprehension of developmental phenomena. The biologist Karl Niklas begins the session by reviewing some of the mechanical forces that are operative in plant development and shows how they can be linked up with molecular genetic signaling and developmental genetic networks in cellular contexts. The philosopher of physics Robert Batterman explores how multi-scale models frequently utilized in materials science can be applied to developmental phenomena, specifically epithelial sheets. The philosopher of biology Alan Love demonstrates how physical forces can be manipulated experimentally as difference makers in a manner analogous to mutational analysis—a central feature of successful genetic approaches—and illustrates it with studies of fluid flow during cardiogenesis. The biologist Laura Nilson completes the session with a commentary from the vantage point of a developmental biologist studying the mechanisms underlying the origin of axial asymmetries during the development of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.