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

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-1545
Individual papers
Mechanisms and Design in Practice

The flat vs. the dimensioned view of constitutive mechanisms

Beate Krickel (Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany)

In the new mechanistic literature, authors usually distinguish between two different types of mechanisms: etiological mechanisms, which consist of the preceding causes of a phenomenon-to-be-explained, and constitutive mechanisms, which underlie or constitute a phenomenon (Salmon 1984; Craver 2007a). While the notion of causation is extensively discussed in philosophy of science as well as metaphysics, the way in which mechanisms “underlie” phenomena remains unclear (for analyses of this notion see Craver 2007a, 2007b; Harbecke 2010; Kistler 2010; Couch 2011; Fagan 2012, Kaiser and Krickel under review). In this paper, I will present two different general views on constitutive mechanisms, the flat and the dimensioned view of constitutive mechanisms. I will argue that the flat view is problematic in ways in which the dimensioned view is not. More specifically, this paper proceeds as follows: in Section 2, I will present the general idea behind the notion of a constitutive mechanism. In doing so I will explicate the central characteristics of the relation involved (“mechanistic constitution”) and of the relata of this relation (the mechanism and the phenomenon). I will argue that there are two different ways of interpreting the general idea of a constitutive mechanism. In Section 3, I will introduce the first way of interpreting the general idea, which I will call the flat view. Most authors, for example Craver (2007a), seem to endorse this view. In Section 3, I will present four problems for the flat view. In Section 4, I will introduce an alternative view of constitutive mechanisms, which I will call the dimensioned view. I will argue that this view avoids the problems that arise for the flat view.

Design and variation in synthetic biology

Tero Ijäs (University of Helsinki, Finland)

Synthetic biology is a novel biological research field which aims to construct artificial biological components and systems by applying engineering-inspired design methods and principles in biotechnological research. This paper aims to clarify the conceptual questions of different design approaches in synthetic biology and the role of variation in these stances. According to rational design approach, synthetic biology should aim to decrease biological complexity and create well-defined standardized synthetic components and devices. Ideally, rational design aims to generate a library of characterized components and modules that can be assembled to more complex devices with predictable outcomes. In turn, evolutionary approach uses “semi-rational” design methods like ‘directed evolution’ to tune or explore device functionality. These methods induce variation and perturbations with unknown impacts to target devices (e.g. gene circuit) to generate a library of mutants that could be screened for desired phenotypes. Both rational design and evolutionary approaches are treated as complimentary rather than opposing methods in synthetic biologists’ toolbox. However, in philosophical and methodological literature these approaches are seen to take different views of biological variation and natural evolution. For rational design, natural evolution is considered as a destructive force that leads to a loss of function, and therefore random variation is seen as something to be suppressed. On the other hand, evolutionary methods consider biological variation to be an important part of biological function and development. In this paper, I will give a closer analysis of role of variation in synthetic biology’s design approaches. I distinguish between different types of random variations and fluctuations, like mutational and functional variation, or cellular noise. Furthermore, I analyze how these different types of variation relate to system design and engineering in synthetic biology.

Reconstructing concepts: A new approach to the problem of referential stability

Corinne Bloch (Marquette University, United States)

Debates between realists and non-realists have often centered on the question of referential stability throughout theoretical shifts. One obstacle to settlement of the debate has been the difficulty of differentiating between cases of referential change and cases in which theoretical changes have taken place alongside referential stability. If we acknowledge that, throughout the history of science, some theoretical changes have resulted in referential change, yet we wish to avoid the implication that any change in theory must result in a change in a concept’s referents, then we must provide criteria for distinguishing the reference-grounding elements from additional theoretical commitments that scientists hold about the referents of the concept. I address this challenge, and propose a solution through analysis of the concept ‘synapse’ throughout dramatic theoretical shifts with respect to the function and structure of synapses. I argue that reference across different theories can be established through the reconstruction of the conceptual hierarchy (i.e., the relations of generality and inclusion between the categories) within each theoretical framework. This reconstruction, I suggest, can be achieved by analysis of the causally fundamental distinguishing characteristics featured in scientific definitions, within their original context. I also consider the implications of this proposal for questions of incommensurability.