Article ID: CBB709739006

Revisiting Generality in Biology: Systems Biology and the Quest for Design Principles (2015)


Due to the variation, contingency and complexity of living systems, biology is often taken to be a science without fundamental theories, laws or general principles. I revisit this question in light of the quest for design principles in systems biology and show that different views can be reconciled if we distinguish between different types of generality. The philosophical literature has primarily focused on (the lack of) generality of specific models or explanations, or on the heuristic role of abstraction. This paper takes a different approach in emphasizing a theory-constituting role of general principles. Design principles signify general dependency-relations between structures and functions, given a set of formally defined constraints. I contend that design principles increase our understanding of living systems by relating specific models to general types. The categorization of types is based on a delineation of the scope of biological possibilities, which serves to identify and define the generic features of classes of systems. To characterize the basis for general principles through generic abstraction and reasoning about possibility spaces, I coin the term constraint-based generality. I show that constraint-based generality is distinct from other types of generality in biology, and argue that general principles play a unifying role that does not entail theory reduction.

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Authors & Contributors
Kutschera, Ulrich
Laubichler, Manfred Dietrich
Maienschein, Jane A.
Olsson, Lennart
Hossfeld, Uwe
Niklas, Karl J.
Biology and Philosophy
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Annals of the History and Philosophy of Biology
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Archives of Natural History
MIT Press
The MIT Press
University of Pittsburgh
Evolutionary developmental biology
Developmental biology
Philosophy of science
Darwin, Charles Robert
Franz, Victor
Hertwig, Oscar
Haeckel, Ernst
Severtsov, Alekesei Nikolaevich
Lorenz, Konrad
Time Periods
20th century
19th century
21st century
20th century, early
United States

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