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

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-1420
Individual papers
Organization and Complexity: From Phenotype to System

Aristotle’s four causes and phenotype

Özlem Yılmaz (Sabancı Üniversitesi, Turkey)

In this presentation causation in phenotype explanation is examined with its similarities to Aristotle’s theory of four causes. The research of the complex pathways of interaction net between genotype, phenotype and environment needs causal investigation which involves more than a single cause. This investigation is similar to the investigation of Aristotle’s material, formal and efficient causes altogether. Final cause will not be used in this consideration because with the theory of evolution, which is a fundamental principle of biology, it is clear that there isn’t any purposive happening in biological phenomena. Still the final cause gets place in many philosophical studies and keeps its importance. Here in this work author doesn’t think that there is final cause in biology, but despite this she will talk about the similarity between final and formal causes and the role of final cause within the gene centered view. Reducing natural phenomena about living things to one cause (for example: genes) is a mistaken way in explaining phenotype which has many different probabilities and complex interactions in every parts of it. It might sometimes be easier to use parts and to reduce some phenomena into single causes while investigating but the student of nature should always keep in mind that this reducing attitude is only a practical way of understanding the features of parts themselves, and these parts are in a complex and interrelated state all together (they have different features when they are together) and they should be thought and investigated (whenever possible) in this context. As Aristotle puts it; there is no form without matter, as it will be stated in this talk: efficient cause is intrinsic to the living things too; then we can say without material, efficient and formal causes there is no proper explanation of phenotype. In other words proper explanation of phenotype is possible with the investigation of environmental, physiological, developmental, genetic and evolutionary factors in the context of their interrelated state. Maybe this research programme; explaning phenotype with evaluating all these factors, can work with asking all possible causal questions in a proper way to the subject phenomena. In this sense, thinking on Aristotle’s formal, material and efficient causes altogether is similar to explaining and investigating phenotype in a most proper way. Examples from plant physiology in a changing climate will be given.

Organizing principles as tools for explaining biological complexity

Constantinos Mekios (Stonehill College, United States)

One of the notable features of the system-theoretic approaches to biology that emerged in the first half of the 20th century was a commitment to the articulation of a system theory of life. By the time Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General System Theory (1968) was published, his ideas about how such an objective could be reached – ideas which he had first introduced more than thirty years earlier – were ripe. In order to effectively address problems stemming from the complex organization of biological systems, Bertalanffy argued, the focus must turn on the identification of properties shared by systems in general, as well as on the formal expression of the principles that govern them. Among those subscribing to this point of view was Mihajlo Mesarovic, for whom the search for organizing principles was to be at the heart of the inquiry to which he first referred by the term “systems biology” in 1968. In this paper I seek to show that looking back at the conceptual foundations of these early theoretical efforts to address the problem of complexity in biology could help us think about the value of new mathematical tools for contemporary systems biology. This conclusion is not only substantiated by evidence originating from careful characterization of Bertalanffy’s general system principles. It is also supported by recent work in the philosophy of biology which suggests that organizing principles have the potential to complement standard mechanistic explanations in the context of systems biology (Drack and Wolkenhauer 2011; Wolkenhauer et al. 2012; Green and Wolkenhauer 2013). The discussion culminates in the following question: would it be productive for systems biologists to invest on a search for abstract principles at a juncture when their methodology seems to be increasingly defined by pragmatism?

Entropy, the "constructal law" and the emergence of structural organization

Laurent Jodoin (Université de Montréal, Canada)

The emergence of “order” (biological or not) based on entropy dissipation has a long story. Here, I first distinguish the substantial approach (e.g. in physiology) from the analogical approach (e.g. in population genetics) of entropic explanatory strategies. I then discuss the conditions under which a certain kind of emergence can be explained by an entropy principle. I sustain that the ‘constructal law’ proposed by Bejan (1998, 2006, 2012), is a valid criterion to choose among various emergent relata. The upshot is that, as natural selection treats all living creatures as equals (humans no longer have a special status), this account brings closer every physical (i.e. ‘real’) system, the living creatures have then no longer such a special status compared to non-living things.