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

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M460
Individual papers
Theory and Practice And "Chance and Necessity" in Biology

"Emerging concept" in developmental biology

Yoshinari Yoshida (Kyoto University, Japan)

Philosophers of science have several frameworks to discuss the dynamics of biological fields such as theory testing or mechanism identification. I argue that, however, a significant aspect of developmental biology cannot be adequately dealt with by those previous approaches. This paper thus formulates the way of research progression that often occurs in developmental biology but has been ignored in philosophy of science. Developmental biologists often express newly found behaviors of, or interactions between, types of molecules, cells, or tissues in a model system in an abstracted proposition, to which they refer as an “emerging concept.” Unlike the philosophical usage of “concept,” here “concept” means a proposition. Offering an “emerging concept” is an important task for them. I point out that proposing such an abstracted proposition about a novel phenomenon stimulates succeeding studies in other model systems, which gradually determine the range of its application. The entire process, to which philosophers have not paid attention, facilitates organizing knowledge about diverse developmental phenomena and gives partial integrity to the biological field that does not have any overarching laws or theories.

Untangling the role of theory and mathematics in biological modeling: An amendment to Giere’s framework

Kimberly DeBruler (Rice University, United States)

In describing the relationship between models and theories in scientific practice, philosophers confront the fact that modeling occurs both in fields with a rich body of theory and fields with few overarching theories. This raises the question of whether an effective analysis of modeling in a theory-rich field can be productively extended to theory-poor fields without loosing descriptive power or internal consistency. This paper analyzes the applicable scope of Giere’s (1988, 2004) framework for modeling, which he drew largely from examples in Newtonian physics. It compares his characterization of models as entities that mediate a specific similarity relationship between theory and world to characterization of models as fictions relatively untethered by theory. This comparison serves to rescue the vital role of theory in Giere’s framework from his implicit assumptions regarding the form of theory. His framework is then evaluated through the lens of the historical development of the first model of the cell membrane, the “sandwich model” developed by Danielli and Davson (1935). I argue that Danielli and Davson drew on a critical set of trends that though not explicated in mathematical form synonymous with theory in physics nevertheless serve the two critical purposes of a theory in Giere’s conception of model building: the identification of a preexisting solution that narrows the scope of a problem, and the imposition of boundary conditions once that solution is adopted. I conclude that mistaking the mathemetization of theory, a common feature in physics but a rare one in biology, for the existence of a theory exaggerates the difference in model building between these disciplines. This analysis suggests that the divide between modeling in “theory-rich” and “theory-poor” fields may be bridged at least in part by reevaluating the relationship between the form and the function of theories.

Forty years after “Le hasard et la nécessité” of Jacques Monod

Naoki Sato (University of Tokyo, Japan)

The book Chance and Necessity (abbreviated as HN according to the French title) was written by a molecular biologist Jacques Monod in 1970. Its principal subject was the theory of genetic code in a broader sense, but the author extends his theory to the evolution of human kind or human society. This raised not only debates and quarrels but also serious confusion. In addition, biological knowledge such as genomics/post-genomics dramatically advanced during the past 40 years. It is time to re-evaluate HN, in the light of various arguments against HN in different countries. In general, HN was not understood in depth and criticized superficially in English-speaking countries or Japan, whereas many thoughtful discussions based on deep understanding of HN were found in Germany and France. Evaluation of HN also depends on different disciplines. Philosophical discussions were abundant in France, while only biological aspect of HN, such as molecular biology and evolution, was discussed elsewhere. In this presentation, I would like to make clear what was chance and what was necessity in HN, which are not as simple as one might think. Then I will show that the most fruitful outcome of the theory of genetic code, which should be understood as the combinatorial flexibility of genetic regulatory system, is actually the synthetic biology and systems biology that flourish in the post-genomic era. The ethics of knowledge that sounded strange at that time was, in fact, realized in the present society which is governed by computers, tools of knowledge with some objectivity. Monod was sometimes criticized as being a strict Darwinist, but his evolutionary arguments in HN were rather obscure in the light of present-day knowledge.