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

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M340
Individual papers
Modularity, Hierarchies and Visual Thinking: Analyzing Approaches to Biology

The persistence of hierarchical organization in biological thought

Daniel Brooks** (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Germany)

Despite a slew of recent (yet insightful) criticism, the concept of ‘levels of organization’ remains a pervasive theoretical concept in the biological sciences. For one thing, the concept of levels is heavily referenced in scientific texts of all degrees of specialization, whether in general (or advanced) textbooks or original research articles. Nonetheless, the term's admitted ambiguity poses problems. While it is doubtful that a singular conception of levels can adequately perform the many roles that are attributed to it, a plurality of more particular, mutually complementary levels concepts is possible. In other words, what the critics charge as vacuity in the concept of levels of organization, proponents may defend as a virtue of flexibility in the concept's range of application. This presentation will offer a moderate defense of the levels concept that makes room for a more sustained constructive analysis of the importance of the concept in contemporary biological thinking. Unlike other organizing concepts in biology, such as the ‘tree of life,’ the concept of levels of organization is more directly applied by scientists themselves to, e.g., align or contrast the contributions of their own work on a given scientific problem to other approaches in the same discipline or work in other subdisciplines of biological research. Simultaneously, scientists also use levels to orient their research towards objective features of the natural world. In more philosophical terms, the concept of levels represents an invaluable resource for understanding pluralistic explanation by helping us conceptualize relative explanatory contributions of particular disciplines to complex phenomena that are investigated by multiple disciplines that, alone, are unable to explain such phenomena.

Modularity and the limits of mechanistic explanation in biology

Stavros Ioannidis (University of Athens, Greece)

Biologists commonly describe their practice as involving the discovery of mechanisms. But is it appropriate to describe biological systems as mechanical in nature? In this paper I explore this question by focusing on the nature of mechanistic explanation. I argue that the failure of modularity in the case of biological systems shows the limitations of the application of mechanistic explanation to biology. It is a widely held view that for an explanation to be mechanistic, it has to be modular. In Woodward’s well-known interventionist account of mechanistic explanation, in particular, this means that the causal relationships within the mechanism have to be modular, i.e. it should be in principle possible to change a specific causal relationship without also changing other causal relationships in the system. In the paper, I explore the extent to which biological systems can be said to be modular in Woodward’s sense. Thereby, I investigate how modularity itself can be understood, and what is the relationship between modularity taken as a requirement for mechanistic explanation and concepts of ‘modularity’ commonly encountered in biology. In particular, I focus on a crucial feature that biological processes have but systems commonly viewed as ‘mechanical’ lack: in cases such as metabolic processes and genetic networks, the causally active components of a mechanism are themselves produced during the operation of a mechanism, in contrast to cases of systems typically regarded as mechanical. If a biological system fails to be modular, it would be misleading to describe it as a mechanism, and to employ mechanistic explanations to explain its behaviour. To the extent that the failure of modularity is the norm in biological cases, the present argument shows a limitation of the mechanistic view of explanation in the biological case, and the need to develop non-mechanistic accounts of biological explanation.

Visual thinking in genetics: A case of genetic maps in Seymour Benzer

Yoichi Ishida (Ohio University, United States)

In 1954, Benzer began experimental work that would produce a series of seminal contributions to molecular biology. Benzer’s research notebooks collected at the Caltech Archives show that much of his daily research activities from 1954 to the early 1960s involved genetic experiments with bacteriophage T4, construction of fine structure genetic maps of the rII region of phage T4 DNA, and exploration of physically coherent interpretations of the map. At bottom, a genetic map is a diagram that provides a visual summary of the results of genetic experiments, and Benzer used it for the purpose of organizing the experimental data. But he also used it for the purpose of sustained thinking about the structure of DNA. In this paper, I analyze the roles genetic maps played in the process of Benzer’s reasoning about DNA. Recently, multiple lines of research in information visualization, embodied cognitive science, philosophy of cognitive science, and philosophy of science strongly suggest that a descriptively adequate account of scientific reasoning must take into account the roles that perceptual processes, especially visual processes, play in scientists’ reasoning. Drawing on these lines of research as well as Benzer’s research notebooks, I will develop an account of visual thinking in genetics and show how visual properties of genetic maps can help the sort of research Benzer was doing. Moreover, the account of visual thinking in genetics that I develop will not be a simple extension of the theory developed in the lines of research mentioned above. For, as I also argue, the real-world scientific reasoning with diagrams has characteristics that are not shared by cognitive tasks commonly studied in cognitive science.