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

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M340
Individual papers
Explanation, Complexity, and Function

Forms of explanation in genetics and embryology around 1900

Robert Meunier (Universität Kassel, Germany)

Genetics did not integrate well with experimental embryology around 1900, despite the fact that they were both concerned with reproduction. This can be explained by showing that the fields were governed by different epistemic modes, which were embodied in different types of experiments and yielded different types of explanation. I distinguish decompositioning and differentiating modes of acting and reasoning in biology. One renders the organism as composed of parts, the other as different from other organisms. Accordingly, features of organisms appear as parts of wholes in the decompositioning mode, whereas they figure as differences (“characters”) among kinds in the differentiating mode. These modes yield different forms of causal reasoning. In philosophical discussions of causation a distinction is made between the physical production of an event and the dependence relation between cause and effect. I argue that this distinction maps on the two modes in the following way. Under a decompositioning interpretation causes are identified through a decompositioning of a causal situation. Parts of a causal process are rendered as material agents in physical interaction with other parts. This interpretation corresponds to production theories of causation. In a differentiating mode of reasoning causes are derived from the comparison of causal situations. Thus causal reasoning as described by dependence theories can be reconstructed as derived from classificatory reasoning in which causes and effects are “characteristics” of contrasted kinds of causal situations. It can be shown that in genetics characters and genes are first differential properties of organisms and gametes before they are seen as causally dependent variables. In embryology, instead, features of organisms are construed as parts, which are the outcome of growth processes. The causation of parts is investigated by distinguishing different subparts within an organism and following their productive interaction over time.

Complexity, organization and life in the philosophy of Sir Kenelm Digby

Derek Skillings (City University of New York, United States)

One of the central themes of the history of early-modern philosophy and science is the rise of mechanical philosophy and the fall of Aristotelian views of the natural world. In this paper I look at the philosophy of Sir Kenelm Digby, a now mostly obscure figure who wrote early on in the transition to mechanical philosophy. Digby was a thorough-going mechanist in respect to matter and the physical world. He attempted to wed the emerging mechanical and corpuscular philosophies to the Aristotelian notion of composite substances in his most famous philosophical work, the 1644 Two Treatises. It is Digby’s views on living creatures and machines that concern me here, specifically the role of organization in delimiting the types of things in the world. Though he has not been very well appreciated, I hope to show that his views on life were quite insightful and bear some striking similarities to modern-day theories of the organism.

A better way to be a function pluralist

Justin Garson (City University of New York, United States)

I advocate a new version of function pluralism, which I call “within-discipline pluralism.” I will contrast it with the reigning view, which I call “between-discipline pluralism.” Pluralism, at the most general level, holds that there is more than one correct explication of “biological function.” However, many philosophers also maintain, I think incorrectly, that different theories of function are appropriate to different biological disciplines. For example, one prominent view is that the selected effects theory (SE) only reflects usage in evolutionary biology; in genetics, ecology, neuroscience, and so on, the causal role theory (CR) reigns supreme (unless those disciplines pose specifically evolutionary questions). This is a version of “between-discipline pluralism,” as it emphasizes conceptual variation between disciplines. This version of between-discipline pluralism (according to which SE is appropriate to evolutionary biology, and CR otherwise) is mistaken, however, for the following reason. SE holds that the function of a trait is just the effect it was selected for. It is natural to assume that “selection” refers only to natural selection operating over an evolutionary time scale, and hence, that SE is only relevant when evolutionary questions are being posed. However, SE theorists have typically maintained that there are many different kinds of function bestowing “selection” processes, some of which operate over ontogenetic time scales. These include learning by trial-and-error, antibody selection, and even neural selection, all of which take place over the lifetime of the individual. So, there is no a priori reason to restrict the applicability of SE to evolutionary biology. SE functions are applicable whenever scientists use “function” in the “why-is-it-there” sense. As an alternative, I advocate “within-discipline pluralism.” It is a form of pluralism that recognizes how different concepts of function coexist within the same disciplines. I will illustrate this sort of pluralism with an example from neuroscience.