1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · Events

Mechanism, complexity and metaphysics in molecular and cell biology

Seminar   19.05.2009






Alex Powell, Egenis PhD Student

Organised by



EgenisUniversity of ExeterByrne HouseSt Germans RoadExeter, EX4 4PJ

Room: GF7, Byrne House

Event details

Time: 3:30PM - 5:00PM

A substantial strand in the recent literature of the philosophy of biology emphasizes the importance of mechanistic concepts for explanation and understanding. However, the dominant contemporary account of mechanism – that of Machamer, Darden and Craver (2000) – is notably fuzzy. It is thus not obviously incompatible with the view that all biological phenomena are to be considered mechanistic, or with the idea that there is an explicable fraction corresponding to just those phenomena that are mechanistic. I will argue that what is needed is a more discriminating account of mechanism, one capable of differentiating between biological phenomena on the basis of the causal characteristics reflected in patterns of scientific practice. After examining several senses of mechanism I will suggest that one fruitful approach is to think in terms of the relations between structure, function and process in a system. On this basis I contend that in protein folding we find an example of a fundamental phenomenon that, if it is not non-mechanistic, is mechanistic in only a highly schematic sense. I will discuss why this does not necessarily pose an insuperable barrier to understanding.Switching focus from single molecules to the cell problematizes the nature of complexity. How is it to be captured and expressed? How does cellular complexity stand in relation to mechanism, causality, and emergence? No single account appears generally satisfactory, and this is connected to the problems we have in relating a wide diversity of interacting types of causal factor to patterns of overall causal circularity. Clearly, however, the cell is not entirely intractable. Amongst the multitude of epistemic resources at our disposal is a capacity – relevant to the use of mechanistic thinking – to make metaphysically laden functional attributions. I shall conclude my talk by briefly discussing aspects of such attributions, making reference to biological invocations of the concepts of control and information.

Further details