Evolutionary Developmental Biology and the Limits of Philosophical Accounts of Mechanistic Explanation

In P.-A. Braillard & C. Malaterre (eds.), Explanation in Biology: An Enquiry into the Diversity of Explanatory Patterns in the Life Sciences. Springer. pp. 135–173 (2015)
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Evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) is considered a ‘mechanistic science,’ in that it causally explains morphological evolution in terms of changes in developmental mechanisms. Evo-devo is also an interdisciplinary and integrative approach, as its explanations use contributions from many fields and pertain to different levels of organismal organization. Philosophical accounts of mechanistic explanation are currently highly prominent, and have been particularly able to capture the integrative nature of multifield and multilevel explanations. However, I argue that evo-devo demonstrates the need for a broadened philosophical conception of mechanisms and mechanistic explanation. Mechanistic explanation (in terms of the qualitative interactions of the structural parts of a whole) has been developed as an alternative to the traditional idea of explanation as derivation from laws or quantitative principles. Against the picture promoted by Carl Craver, that mathematical models describe but usually do not explain, my discussion of cases from the strand of evo-devo which is concerned with developmental processes points to qualitative phenomena where quantitative mathematical models are an indispensable part of the explanation. While philosophical accounts have focused on the actual organization and operation of mechanisms, properties of developmental mechanisms that are about how a mechanism reacts to modifications are of major evolutionary significance, including robustness, phenotypic plasticity, and modularity. A philosophical conception of mechanisms is needed that takes into account quantitative changes, transient entities and the generation of novel types of entities, feedback loops and complex interaction networks, emergent properties, and, in particular, functional-dynamical aspects of mechanisms, including functional (as opposed to structural) organization and distributed, system-wide phenomena. I conclude with general remarks on philosophical accounts of explanation.



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Ingo Brigandt
University of Alberta

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References found in this work

Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation.James Woodward - 2003 - New York, US: Oxford University Press.
Explaining the Brain: Mechanisms and the Mosaic Unity of Neuroscience.Carl F. Craver - 2007 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press.
Thinking about mechanisms.Peter Machamer, Lindley Darden & Carl F. Craver - 2000 - Philosophy of Science 67 (1):1-25.

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