Thesis ID: CBB370698463

Essentially Dynamic Concepts and the Case of "Homology" (2021)


Conceptual change often accompanies the development of scientific knowledge over time. Scientists also frequently disagree about what exactly their core concepts mean and how they should be applied. Why is this the case, and what makes these dynamic concepts work as well as they do? This dissertation addresses that larger problem by way of a smaller one involving a particularly important biological concept. Homology relates corresponding parts in different organisms—for instance the human arm, bat wing, and whale flipper are all vertebrate forelimbs despite their differences in form and function. Biologists have specified the nature of this relationship quite differently over a period of more than 150 years, and they continue to do so today. How can such a central concept be so difficult to pin down? Philosophical analyses of ‘homology’ typically collapse its many contemporary variants into two or three major theoretical accounts of what makes homologous body parts “the same.” By examining four key historical episodes, I argue that a much richer characterization of the concept is necessary to make sense of its formation and subsequent development. Richard Owen’s original definition was just one part of a complex research program that provided cohesion to later and otherwise quite diverse studies. A mid-twentieth century conflict over Owen’s legacy decisively altered the conceptualization of homology in evolutionary biology. G. G. Simpson and Alan Boyden disagreed as to whether the evolutionary explanation of homologous resemblance belonged in the definition of the concept. More recently, differences over how to determine, represent, and interpret homology have rent a small group of systematists who identify themselves as intellectual descendants of Willi Hennig. Finally, ongoing attempts to resolve avian wing digit homology challenge any simple association between disciplines and accounts of homology. My analysis of the homology case motivates a novel general model of conceptual change according to which certain scientific concepts are essentially dynamic. Scientists initially adopt such concepts because they identify a phenomenon worth studying and consolidate promising epistemic resources for that study. These resources are both material and cognitive in nature. In addition to theoretical definitions of the concept, they may include specialized techniques, sources of data, operational criteria, and known examples. The coordination of these resources represents a valuable achievement or exemplar for the ongoing use of the concept. Change and variation in its use follow naturally from the epistemic complexity of scientific research and from the spatiotemporal complexity of the systems it targets. The course of subsequent research also depends on the aims of individual scientists and the development of new techniques and methods in their wider fields of study. My model suggests approaches to the study of conceptual change that are likely to apply to other concepts in biology and perhaps beyond.

Citation URI

This citation is part of the Isis database.

Similar Citations

Article Mary P. Winsor; (2021)
“I would sooner die than give up”: Huxley and Darwin's deep disagreement (/p/isis/citation/CBB437064231/) unapi

Article Pedroso, Makmiller; (2012)
Essentialism, History, and Biological Taxa (/p/isis/citation/CBB001221601/) unapi

Article Christopher H. Pearson; (2018)
Theoricity and Homology: A Reply to Roffe, Ginnobili, and Blanco (/p/isis/citation/CBB690540493/) unapi

Article Olivier Rieppel; (2020)
Morphology and Phylogeny (/p/isis/citation/CBB122827069/) unapi

Article Marco Tamborini; (2022)
Organic form and evolution: The morphological problem in twentieth-century italian biology (/p/isis/citation/CBB184611741/) unapi

Article Billinger, Michael S.; (2007)
Racial Classification in the Evolutionary Sciences: A Comparative Analysis (/p/isis/citation/CBB000931560/) unapi

Book Richard A. Richards; (2016)
Biological Classification: A Philosophical Introduction (/p/isis/citation/CBB688800037/) unapi

Book Maureen O'Malley; (2014)
Philosophy of Microbiology (/p/isis/citation/CBB986238734/) unapi

Article Lyons, Sherrie Lynne; (2002)
Thomas Kuhn Is Alive and Well: The Evolutionary Relationships of Simple Life Forms--A Paradigm Under Siege? (/p/isis/citation/CBB000300976/) unapi

Article Ebach, Malte C.; Williams, David M.; (2007)
An Outline of the Foundations of Systematics and Biogeography (/p/isis/citation/CBB000831354/) unapi

Book Lorenzo Baravalle; Luciana Zaterka; (2020)
Life and Evolution: Latin American Essays on the History and Philosophy of Biology (/p/isis/citation/CBB087780936/) unapi

Article William E. Friedman; Peter K. Endress; (2020)
Alexander Moritzi, a Swiss Pre-Darwinian Evolutionist: Insights into the Creationist-Transmutationist Debates of the 1830s and 1840s (/p/isis/citation/CBB329402335/) unapi

Article Ariel Jonathan Roffé; Santiago Ginnobili; Daniel Blanco; (2018)
Theoricity, Observation and Homology: A Response to Pearson (/p/isis/citation/CBB111999401/) unapi

Article Mathilde Lequin; (2022)
Comment nommer la lignée humaine ? De l’ordre des Bimanes à la sous-tribu des hominiens (/p/isis/citation/CBB412033582/) unapi

Book Ruse, Michael; Richards, Robert J.; (2008)
The Cambridge Companion to the Origin of Species (/p/isis/citation/CBB000951129/) unapi

Book Michael Ruse; (2021)
Philosophy after Darwin (/p/isis/citation/CBB952503073/) unapi

Article Laurent Loison; (2020)
Introduction (/p/isis/citation/CBB241558115/) unapi

Essay Review Bock, Walter J.; (2000)
Towards a New Metaphysics: The Need for an Enlarged Philosophy of Science (/p/isis/citation/CBB000110319/) unapi

Authors & Contributors
Ruse, Michael
Baravalle, Lorenzo
Billinger, Michael S.
Blanco, Daniel
Bock, Walter J.
Brigandt, Ingo
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Journal of the History of Biology
Revue d'Histoire des Sciences
Biology and Philosophy
Perspectives in Biology and Medicine
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Cambridge University Press
University of Pittsburgh
Princeton University Press
Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung
Springer Nature
Classification in biology
Philosophy of biology
Philosophy of science
Controversies and disputes
Darwin, Charles Robert
Gegenbaur, Carl
Ginnobili, Santiago
Hennig, Willi
Huxley, Thomas Henry
Levi, Giuseppe
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
21st century
20th century, late
20th century, early
Latin America

Be the first to comment!

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

Log in or register to comment