Stem cells and systems models: clashing views of explanation

Synthese 193 (3):873-907 (2016)
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Abstract

This paper examines a case of failed interdisciplinary collaboration, between experimental stem cell research and theoretical systems biology. Recently, two groups of theoretical biologists have proposed dynamical systems models as a basis for understanding stem cells and their distinctive capacities. Experimental stem cell biologists, whose work focuses on manipulation of concrete cells, tissues and organisms, have largely ignored these proposals. I argue that ‘failure to communicate’ in this case is rooted in divergent views of explanation: the theoretically-inclined modelers are committed to a version of the covering-law view, while experimental stem cell biologists aim at mechanistic explanations. I propose a way to reconcile these two explanatory approaches to cell development, and discuss the significance of this result for interdisciplinary collaboration in systems biology and beyond

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Melinda Bonnie Fagan
University of Utah