Biology and Philosophy 22 (5):643-658 (2007)
Philosophical discussions of biological classification have failed to recognise the central role of homology in the classification of biological parts and processes. One reason for this is a misunderstanding of the relationship between judgments of homology and the core explanatory theories of biology. The textbook characterisation of homology as identity by descent is commonly regarded as a definition. I suggest instead that it is one of several attempts to explain the phenomena of homology. Twenty years ago the ‘new experimentalist’ movement in philosophy of science drew attention to the fact that many experimental phenomena have a ‘life of their own’: the conviction that they are real is not dependent on the theories used to characterise and explain them. I suggest that something similar can be true of descriptive phenomena, and that many homologies are phenomena of this kind. As a result the descriptive biology of form and function has a life of its own—a degree of epistemological independence from the theories that explain form and function. I also suggest that the two major ‘homology concepts’ in contemporary biology, usually seen as two competing definitions, are in reality complementary elements of the biological explanation of homology.
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