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

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M240
Individual papers
Systems Biology from Descartes and Spallanzani to Digital Databases

Activities versus ontological parsimony in Descartes’s biological mechanisms

Barnaby Hutchins (Universiteit Gent, Belgium)

Illari and Williamson (2013) have recently defended the inclusion of activities in the ontology of mechanisms against the view that takes activities to be reducible to entities and their capacities. In this paper, I look at perhaps the most famously parsimonious ontology in the history of philosophy, and show that even Descartes finds activities to be ineliminable when explaining biological mechanisms. Descartes was metaphysically committed to an ontology of the material world that consists of nothing more than matter ‘extended in length, breadth and depth’ (Principles 2/4). He consistently asserted the superiority of his approach over Aristotelian natural philosophy precisely on the grounds of its ontological parsimony. Yet his explanations of physiological mechanisms rely not only on the material anatomical structures he observed during dissections of human and animal bodies but also on the activities occurring between those structures. These activities bear more than a passing resemblance to the activities described by recent literature on mechanisms. In this paper, I analyse Descartes’s explanations of the mechanisms of nutrition, circulation, and muscle action. I show that the activities they involve are not reducible to entities, capacities, or motions, but are essential to the mechanisms being described. Thus, e.g., the pulse is an activity in the mechanism of nutrition for Descartes. But pulsation is not a capacity of the blood itself and is ‘as much of the heart as of the arteries’ (Description of the Human Body 2): it is not localisable to any particular anatomical entity or the capacities thereof. Nevertheless, pulsation is at the core of Descartes’s account of nutrition. As such, activities remain ineliminable – even in the context of an ontology with such deep, systematic commitments to parsimony as Descartes’s.

From systems to biology: A bibliographic analysis to reveal the history of systems biology (1992-2013)

Yawen Zou (Arizona State University, United States)

Systems biology, an interdisciplinary field which studies complex biological systems from a holistic perspective, had mostly engineers, mathematicians and physicists as its pioneers before 1990s. However, systems biology has attracted more biologists to participate in it in the past two decades. My goal is to understand (a) the way the contributions of biologists and scientists from non-biological disciplines have changed from 1992 to 2013, and (b) the historical and philosophical implications underlying this change. In the Web of Science, I found 9805 articles in English published between 1992 and 2013 and having the term systems biology in their topics. The citation information of the 9802 articles served as the corpus of my analysis. The corpus was then analyzed through a variety of innovative computational tools and approaches, including citation analysis, text classification, and topic modeling. The results were then interpreted from both the historical and philosophical perspectives. The results are as follows: a) more biology-oriented papers, such as those focusing on biological mechanisms and medical research, were published in the field of systems biology over time, compared with systems-oriented papers like those dealing with mathematical models; b) the institutional context for authors have stabilized since early 2000s, with authors affiliated more with biological institutions than systems-oriented institutions, however, differences were observed for most highly cited authors and general authors; c) topic modeling based on the abstracts of the 9805 articles shows that biology-oriented topics, such as medicine, vaccines and drugs, have been on the rise, further supporting the findings based on references and on institutional context. My analysis suggests that systems biology has shifted from more systems-oriented to more biology-oriented from 1992 to 2013. If the trend continues, systems biology will become more integrated with other biological disciplines, especially medical research.

Lazzaro Spallanzani studies on plant reproduction: A case study on the role of theory in interpreting observations and experiments

Maria Elice Brzezinski Prestes (Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil)

With the overall goal of providing empirical evidence of the unification of animals and plants in one huge family of organic beings, Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799) associated his numerous studies on generation of animals to some plants species. He performed anatomical observations of floral structures and developed different controlled experiments, including procedures that were being incorporated into the experimental protocols of the time, such as parallel series. The Italian naturalist reported the existence of the "seed" inside the female flowers before fertilization, and concluded that pollen was not always needed for the development of the embryo. These conclusions were consistent with his ovist preformation ideas, as opposed to other concepts advocated by botanists of the time, both those related to the animalculist preformation and those proposing the existence of sexual reproduction in plants with the participation of two fertilizing liquids, male and female. The episode is a case study for discussion on the role of theories and their relation to observation and experiments in the construction of scientific knowledge.