PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Integrating Generic and Genetic Explanations of Biological Phenomena

Both genetic and generic explanations have been invoked for more than a hundred years to explain biological phenomena, sometimes in a spirit of integration, sometimes in a spirit of competition. D’Arcy Thompson clearly favored a spirit of explanatory integration: “It would be an exaggeration to see in every bone nothing more than a resultant of immediate and direct physical or mechanical conditions… But I maintain that it is no less of an exaggeration if we tend to neglect these direct physical and mechanical modes of causation altogether, and to see in the characters of a bone merely the results of variation and of heredity” (Thompson 1992 [1942]). Although genetic approaches predominate throughout contemporary biology, one of the major research trends of the past decade is the reintroduction of physical science approaches to the biological sciences through research programs such as systems biology or network theory (Alon 2007) and the application of physical principles to specific biological phenomena like development (Savin et al. 2011), evolutionary novelty (Wagner 2011), and evolvability (Torres-Sosa et al. 2012). Despite this trend, there remains an acute difficulty in how to more effectively integrate different types of explanations across scientific disciplines to better understand life’s complexity. Complex biological problems, such as explaining development, evolutionary novelty, and evolvability, require an interdisciplinary dialogue in order to synthesize different kinds of causal factors, and these kinds of syntheses necessitate the integration of intellectual resources from different disciplinary strands and the adjudication of differing criteria of explanatory adequacy. This poster describes the three year grant project “Integrating Generic and Genetic Explanations of Biological Phenomena” that is tackling the challenge of formulating models that combine causal factors to produce more or less integrated explanations and discovering to what extent this integration can be achieved in scientific practice.


Alon, U. 2007. An Introduction to Systems Biology: Design Principles of Biological Circuits. Boca Raton, FL: Chapman & Hall/CRC Mathematical & Computational Biology.

Savin, T., N.A. Kurpios, A.E. Shyer, P. Florescu, H. Liang, L. Mahadevan, and C. Tabin. 2011. On the growth and form of the gut. Nature 476:57-62.

Thompson, D’A.W. 1992 [1942]. On Growth and Form. Revised ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Torres-Sosa, C., S. Huang, and M. Aldana. 2012. Criticality is an emergent property of genetic networks that exhibit evolvability. PLoS Computational Biology 8:e1002669.

Wagner, A. 2011. The Origins of Evolutionary Innovations: A Theory of Transformative Change in Living Systems. New York: Oxford University Press.

Author Information:

William Wimsatt    
Center for Philosophy of Science
University of Minnesota

Alan Love    
Center for Philosophy of Science
University of Minnesota


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