Revisiting generality in biology: systems biology and the quest for design principles

Biology and Philosophy 30 (5):629-652 (2015)

Abstract
Due to the variation, contingency and complexity of living systems, biology is often taken to be a science without fundamental theories, laws or general principles. I revisit this question in light of the quest for design principles in systems biology and show that different views can be reconciled if we distinguish between different types of generality. The philosophical literature has primarily focused on generality of specific models or explanations, or on the heuristic role of abstraction. This paper takes a different approach in emphasizing a theory-constituting role of general principles. Design principles signify general dependency-relations between structures and functions, given a set of formally defined constraints. I contend that design principles increase our understanding of living systems by relating specific models to general types. The categorization of types is based on a delineation of the scope of biological possibilities, which serves to identify and define the generic features of classes of systems. To characterize the basis for general principles through generic abstraction and reasoning about possibility spaces, I coin the term constraint-based generality. I show that constraint-based generality is distinct from other types of generality in biology, and argue that general principles play a unifying role that does not entail theory reduction
Keywords Design principles  Systems biology  Unification  Biological laws  Constraints  Generic abstraction
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DOI 10.1007/s10539-015-9496-9
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References found in this work BETA

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.Thomas S. Kuhn - 1962 - University of Chicago Press.
Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.Daniel C. Dennett & Jon Hodge - 1995 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 48 (3):435-438.
Explanation and Scientific Understanding.Michael Friedman - 1974 - Journal of Philosophy 71 (1):5-19.

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Citations of this work BETA

Multiple Realization in Systems Biology.Wei Fang - forthcoming - Philosophy of Science.

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