Big data biology—bioinformatics, computational biology, systems biology (including ‘omics’), and synthetic biology—raises a number of issues for the philosophy of science. This article deals with several such: Is data-intensive biology a new kind of science, presumably post-reductionistic? To what extent is big data biology data-driven? Can data ‘speak for themselves?’ I discuss these issues by way of a reflection on Carl Woese’s worry that “a society that permits biology to become an engineering discipline, that allows that science to slip into (...) the role of changing the living world without trying to understand it, is a danger to itself.” And I argue that scientific perspectivism, a philosophical stance represented prominently by Giere, Van Fraassen, and Wimsatt, according to which science cannot as a matter of principle transcend our human perspective, provides the best resources currently at our disposal to tackle many of the philosophical issues implied in the modeling of complex, multilevel/multiscale phenomena. (shrink)
Systems biology is largely tributary to genomics and other “omic” disciplines that generate vast amounts of structural data. “Omics”, however, lack a theoretical framework that would allow using these data sets as such (rather than just tiny bits that are extracted by advanced data-mining techniques) to build explanatory models that help understand physiological processes. Systems biology provides such a framework by adding a dynamic dimension to merely structural “omics”. It makes use of bottom-up and top-down models. The former are based (...) on data about systems components, the latter on systems-level data. We trace back both modeling strategies (which are often used to delineate two branches of the field) to the modeling of metabolic and signaling pathways in the bottom-up case, and to biological cybernetics and systems theory in the top-down case. We then argue that three roots of systems biology must be discerned to account adequately for the structure of the field: pathway modeling, biological cybernetics, and “omics”. We regard systems biology as merging modeling strategies (supplemented by new mathematical procedures) from data-poor fields with data supply from a field that is quite deficient in explanatory modeling. After characterizing the structure of the field, we address some epistemological and ontological issues regarding concepts on which the top-down approach relies and that seem to us to require clarification. This includes the consequences of identifying modules in large networks without relying on functional considerations, the question of the “holism” of systems biology, and the epistemic value of the “systeome” project that aspires to become the cutting edge of the field. (shrink)
Philosophers of science traditionally have ignored the details of scientific research, and the result has often been theories that lack relevance either to science or to philosophy in general. In this volume, leading philosophers of biology discuss the limitations of this tradition and the advantages of the "naturalistic turn"—the idea that the study of science is itself a scientific enterprise and should be conducted accordingly. This innovative book presents candid, informal debates among scholars who examine the benefits and problems of (...) studying science in the same way that scientists study the natural world. Callebaut achieves the effect of face-to-face engagement through separate interviews with participants. Contributors include William Bechtel, Robert Brandon, Richard M. Burian, Donald T. Campbell, Patricia Churchland, Jon Elster, Ronald N. Giere, David L. Hull, Philip Kitcher, Karin Knorr Cetina, Bruno Latour, Richard Levins, Richard C. Lewontin, Elisabeth Lloyd, Helen Longino, Thomas Nickles, Henry C. Plotkin, Robert J. Richards, Alexander Rosenberg, Michael Ruse, Dudley Shapere, Elliott Sober, Ryan Tweney, and William Wimsatt. "Why can't we have both theoretical ecology and natural histories, lovingly done?"—Philip Kitcher "Don't underestimate the arrogance of philosophers!"—Elisabeth Lloyd. (shrink)
There are many things that philosophy of biology might be. But, given the existence of a professional philosophy of biology that is arguably a progressive research program and, as such, unrivaled, it makes sense to define philosophy of biology more narrowly than the totality of intersecting concerns biologists and philosophers (let alone other scholars) might have. The reasons for the success of the “new” philosophy of biology remain poorly understood. I reflect on what Dutch and Flemish, and, more generally, European (...) philosophers of biology could do to improve the situation of their discipline locally, regionally, and internationally, paying particular attention to the lessons to be learned from the “Science Wars.”. (shrink)
In a recent opinion piece, Denis Duboule has claimed that the increasing shift towards systems biology is driving evolutionary and developmental biology apart, and that a true reunification of these two disciplines within the framework of evolutionary developmental biology may easily take another 100 years. He identifies methodological, epistemological, and social differences as causes for this supposed separation. Our article provides a contrasting view. We argue that Duboule’s prediction is based on a one-sided understanding of systems biology as a science (...) that is only interested in functional, not evolutionary, aspects of biological processes. Instead, we propose a research program for an evolutionary systems biology, which is based on local exploration of the configuration space in evolving developmental systems. We call this approach—which is based on reverse engineering, simulation, and mathematical analysis—the natural history of configuration space. We discuss a number of illustrative examples that demonstrate the past success of local exploration, as opposed to global mapping, in different biological contexts. We argue that this pragmatic mode of inquiry can be extended and applied to the mathematical analysis of the developmental repertoire and evolutionary potential of evolving developmental mechanisms and that evolutionary systems biology so conceived provides a pragmatic epistemological framework for the EvoDevo synthesis. (shrink)
The articles in this issue reflect the results of the 25th Altenberg Workshop in Theoretical Biology on ‘‘The Meaning of ‘Theory’ in Biology’’ held at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Altenberg, Austria, 30 June–3 July, 2011.
Simon’s bounded rationality , the first scientific research program to seriously take the cognitive limitations of decision makers into account, has often been conflated with his more restricted concept of satisficing—choosing an alternative that meets or exceeds specified criteria, but that is not guaranteed to be unique or in any sense “the best.” Proponents of optimization often dismiss bounded rationality out of hand with the following “hallway syllogism” : bounded rationality “boils down to” satisficing; satisficing is “simply” a theory of (...) search for alternatives that takes into account the costs of computation. Hence, bounded rationality is “just a minor tweak” on optimal search theory. (shrink)
Our primary goal in this article is to discuss the cross-talk between biological and cultural factors that become manifested in the individual brain development, neural wiring, neurochemical homeostasis, and behavior. We will show that behavioral propensities are the product of both cultural and biological factors and an understanding of these interactive processes can provide deep insights into why people behave the way they do. This interdisciplinary perspective is offered in an effort to generate dialog and empirical work among scholars interested (...) in merging aspects of anthropology and neuroscience, and anticipates that biological and cultural anthropology converge. We discuss new theoretical developments, hypothesis-testing strategies, and cross-disciplinary methods of observation and data collection. We believe that the exigency of integrating anthropology and the neurosciences is indisputable and anthropology’s role in an emerging interdisciplinary science of human behavior will be critical because its focus is, and has always been, on human biological and cultural systems. (shrink)
Although “theory” has been the prevalent unit of analysis in the meta-study of science throughout most of the twentieth century, the concept remains elusive. I further explore the leitmotiv of several authors in this issue: that we should deal with theorizing (rather than theory) in biology as a cognitive activity that is to be investigated naturalistically. I first contrast how philosophers and biologists have tended to think about theory in the last century or so, and consider recent calls to upgrade (...) the role of theory in the life sciences against the background of the recent “data deluge” in molecular biology, systems biology, etc. I then review thinking about theory in biology in relation to physical theory as a positive or negative exemplar. I conclude by discussing various aspects of a positive program for “naturalizing theorizing.”. (shrink)
I discuss various reactions to my article “Again, what the philosophy of science is not” [Callebaut (Acta Biotheor 53:92–122 (2005a))], most of which concern the naturalism issue, the place of the philosophy of biology within philosophy of science and philosophy at large, and the proper tasks of the philosophy of biology.
Ioannidis [Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Med 2: e124 ] identifies six factors that contribute to explaining why most of the current published research findings are more likely to be false than true, and argues that for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias. In this article, we argue that three “hot” areas in current biological research, viz., agent-based modeling, evolutionary developmental biology , and systems biology, are (...) especially prone to the flaws. (shrink)