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Revisiting generality in the life sciences: Systems biology and the quest for general principles

Green, Sara (2015) Revisiting generality in the life sciences: Systems biology and the quest for general principles. Biology and Philosophy, 30. pp. 629-652.

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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 dependencyrelations
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 constraintbased
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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Item Type: Published Article or Volume
Keywords: Design principles ; Systems biology ; Unification ; Biological laws ; Constraints ; Generic abstraction
Depositing User: Dr. Sara Green
Date Deposited: 08 Jun 2016 19:17
Last Modified: 08 Jun 2016 19:17
Item ID: 11793
Journal or Publication Title: Biology and Philosophy
Date: 2015
Page Range: pp. 629-652
Volume: 30

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