On mechanistic reasoning in unexpected places: the case of population genetics

Biology and Philosophy 32 (6):999-1018 (2017)
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Abstract

A strong case has been made for the role and value of mechanistic reasoning in process-oriented sciences, such as molecular biology and neuroscience. This paper shifts focus to assess the role of mechanistic reasoning in an area where it is neither obvious nor expected: population genetics. Population geneticists abstract away from the causal-mechanical details of individual organisms and, instead, use mathematics to describe population-level, statistical phenomena. This paper, first, develops a framework for the identification of mechanistic reasoning where it is not obvious: mathematical and mechanistic styles of scientific reasoning. Second, it applies this framework to demonstrate that both styles are integrated in modern investigations of evolutionary biology. Characteristic of the former, applied population genetic techniques provide statistical evidence for associations between genotype, phenotype, and fitness. Characteristic of the latter, experimental interventions provide causal-mechanical evidence for associations between the very same relationships, often in the same model organisms. The upshot is a richer perspective of how evolutionary biologists build evidence for hypotheses regarding adaptive evolution and a general framework for assessing the scope of mechanistic reasoning across the sciences.

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Lucas J. Matthews
Columbia University