Article ID: CBB579689608

Causal Concepts in Biology: How Pathways Differ from Mechanisms and Why It Matters (2021)


Over the last two decades few topics in philosophy of science have received as much attention as mechanistic explanation. A significant motivation for these accounts is that scientists frequently use the term ‘mechanism’ in their explanations of biological phenomena. Of course, biologists use a variety of causal concepts in their explanations, including concepts like pathways, cascades, triggers, and processes. Despite this variety, mainstream philosophical views interpret all of these concepts with the single notion of mechanism. In using the mechanism concept interchangeably with other causal concepts, it is not clear that these accounts well capture the diversity of causal structures in biology. This article analyses two causal concepts in biology—the notions of ‘mechanism’ and ‘pathway’—and how they figure in biological explanation. I argue that these concepts have unique features, that they are associated with distinct strategies of causal investigation, and that they figure in importantly different types of explanation.

Citation URI

Similar Citations

Article Karina Alleva; José Díez; Lucia Federico; (2017)
Models, theory structure and mechanisms in biochemistry: The case of allosterism (/isis/citation/CBB541545262/)

Article Moss, Lenny; Nicholson, Daniel J.; (2012)
On Nature and Normativity: Normativity, Teleology, and Mechanism in Biological Explanation (/isis/citation/CBB001221591/)

Thesis Hendrikse, Jesse Love; (2006)
Explanation and Inheritance (/isis/citation/CBB001561700/)

Article Vermaas, Pieter E.; Houkes, Wybo; (2003)
Ascribing Functions to Technical Artefacts: A Challenge to Etiological Accounts of Functions (/isis/citation/CBB000410725/)

Article Birch, Jonathan; (2012)
The Negative View of Natural Selection (/isis/citation/CBB001221639/)

Article Daniel C. Burnston; (2016)
Data graphs and mechanistic explanation (/isis/citation/CBB555220713/)

Article Bechtel, William; Abrahamsen, Adele; (2005)
Explanation: A Mechanist Alternative (/isis/citation/CBB000770697/)

Book Pierre-Alain Braillard; Christophe Malaterre; (2015)
Explanation in Biology: An Enquiry into the Diversity of Explanatory Patterns in the Life Sciences (/isis/citation/CBB328513685/)

Article Pierrick Bourrat; (2020)
Natural selection and the reference grain problem (/isis/citation/CBB530242611/)

Article Bechtel, William; (2010)
The Cell: Locus or Object of Inquiry? (/isis/citation/CBB001023957/)

Article William Bechtel; (2015)
Can mechanistic explanation be reconciled with scale-free constitution and dynamics? (/isis/citation/CBB113792331/)

Article Alexander R. Fiorentino; Olaf Dammann; (2015)
Evidence, illness, and causation: An epidemiological perspective on the Russo–Williamson Thesis (/isis/citation/CBB556890631/)

Article Short, T. L.; (2002)
Darwin's Concept of Final Cause: Neither New nor Trivial (/isis/citation/CBB000202574/)

Book Koons, Robert C.; (2000)
Realism Regained: An Exact Theory of Causation, Teleology, and the Mind (/isis/citation/CBB000410586/)

Article Ariew, André; (2003)
Ernst Mayr's “Ultimate/Proximate” Distinction Reconsidered and Reconstructed (/isis/citation/CBB000340589/)

Article Raphael Scholl; (2020)
Unwarranted assumptions: Claude Bernard and the growth of the vera causa standard (/isis/citation/CBB697599592/)

Book Hsiang-Ke Chao; Szu-Ting Chen; Roberta L. Millstein; (2013)
Mechanism and Causality in Biology and Economics (/isis/citation/CBB083904721/)

Article Darden, Lindley; (2005)
Relations among Fields: Mendelian, Cytological and Molecular Mechanisms (/isis/citation/CBB000770694/)

Article Aaron Wells; (2020)
Kant, Linnaeus, and the economy of nature (/isis/citation/CBB872058525/)

Authors & Contributors
Bechtel, William
Short, T. L.
Ariew, André
Koons, Robert C.
Vermaas, Pieter E.
Houkes, Wybo
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Biology and Philosophy
British Journal for the Philosophy of Science
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
Oxford University Press
University of Calgary (Canada)
Philosophy of biology
Mechanism; mechanical philosophy
Explanation; hypotheses; theories
Darwin, Charles Robert
Mayr, Ernst
Bernard, Claude
Kant, Immanuel
Linnaeus, Carolus
Time Periods
21st century
19th century
20th century, late
20th century
18th century

Be the first to comment!

{{ comment.created_by.username }} on {{ comment.created_on | date:'medium' }}

Log in or register to comment