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

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-R515
Organized session / diverse format
Aspects of biological organization

Derek Skillings (City University of New York, United States); John Matthewson (Massey University, New Zealand)


Laura Franklin-Hall (New York University, United States)
John Matthewson (Massey University, New Zealand)
Derek Skillings (City University of New York, United States)

The organizational structure of a biological system is important in many ways and contexts. The way a cell, tissue, or organism is organized is a core determinant of its particular traits and features. Generic features such as robustness and reliability often depend on organization as well. While important, the notion of organization has remained under-explored in philosophy of biology, both conceptually and in terms of its significance within the life sciences.

One reason for this may have to do with the centrality of evolutionary theory, in which organization is (arguably) less important. However, increased philosophical focus on other parts of the life sciences, especially those that do not specifically deal in populations, means that organization requires more of our attention. Organization – or lack thereof – is a key concern in fields such as cellular, molecular and developmental biology and neuroscience. Accordingly, this concept has begun to receive more attention following the explosion of interest in mechanistic explanation. Organization is central here, but until recently philosophers have paid comparatively little attention to the character and specific roles a system’s organization plays in this type of explanation.

This session will bring together different perspectives on the theme of biological organization. The papers will explore the role of different organizational patterns with respect to robustness; the contrast between organization and disorganization in early developmental processes, the ability of certain physical organizations to support useful abstraction, and when it may be appropriate to represent systems as more organized than they actually are. This session aims to bring into sharper focus the philosophical issues surrounding the varieties of biological organization, as well as the contexts in which organization should be a central consideration.

The Possibility of Organismal Biology
Laura Franklin-Hall
Our world is a physical one, made exclusively of physical stuff governed by physical law. Yet many of the biological sciences—from ecology to molecular, developmental and evolutionary biology—with varying amounts of success, describe the workings of living systems by omitting many if not most of these physical details. Were these systems simple in either of two ways—had they only a small number of parts, or were those parts organized only loosely—it would be easy to understand how highly abstract, detail-sparse descriptions could be satisfactory. But it is not straightforward how real biological systems—particularly organismal systems—which possess a large number of parts, intricately organized, can be so described. While focusing on examples from contemporary systems biology, this paper aims to explain this possibility in two parts. Part one focuses on the causal architecture of organismal systems and catalogues the generic organizational features—among them hierarchical embedding and coordinated constraints—which underpin the robustness of organismal systems. In part two I suggest that these features also permit scientists to use iterative abstraction to neglect details in their predictive and explanatory models, thereby showing how simple models of complex, organismal systems are possible whenever the aforementioned organizational features are present.

Idealised Organisation
John Matthewson
The claim that a biological system exhibits a substantial degree of organisation usually involves some commitment to the idea that particular components within the system have particular roles to play. For example, intracellular processes will often be represented as organised sequences of functional roles discharged by a particular set of entities within the cell. However, many of these processes actually fail to approximate a straightforward role/occupier picture at all well. This means representing cells as composed of – and constituting – organised systems may require a significant level of idealisation and abstraction. This potential mismatch between depiction and reality is important to recognise if the representational goal is realism. However, it may be of less concern for other objectives such as prediction or even explanation. If this type of idealisation / abstraction leads to accurate predictions and enables us to account for the relevant counterfactuals, we might not need to care that much about whether cellular structures and processes are actually organised in some straightforward manner, rather than merely appearing as though they are organised in this way. I will present some examples of mismatches between representation and actuality in this context, and consider whether anything general can be said about cases where this type of idealisation is likely to be benign, where it may be problematic, and ways in which it might be valuable.

Ways to be Robust
Derek Skillings
One striking feature of most biological processes and systems is their high degree of robustness, or the reliable production of a similar output under a wide range of circumstances. Despite the ubiquity and importance of robustness, many explanations in biology pass over the organizational details that give rise to it. This may be problematic because most of the biomolecular processes that underlie biological phenomena are robust in a way that is quite different from the robustness seen in macro-level processes. Because of this, I will suggest, our causal explanatory habits have the potential to mislead us when thinking about some aspects of biology. In this talk I will explore some of the alternative patterns of causal organization that underlie robustness in physical systems. I start by contrasting causal organization in two types of biological systems: the nanoscale world inside the cell--where stochastic processes dominate-- versus the more familiar world of macroorganisms. I suggest that when robustness is present, a good explanation must differentiate the way in which a causal process or system is robust. I finish by introducing a framework for doing so--co-opting and modifying the concepts of redundancy, resistance and resilience from ecology and structural engineering.