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Egenis · Research

Molecules, Cells and Explanation in Biology

Alexander Powell

Start date


Affiliated staff

John Dupré and Maureen O’Malley


Homepages: , , and Email: ap269@exeter.ac.uk Room: SF10 Building: Byrne House

Funded by

University of Exeter


The topic of explanation has been a traditional concern of philosophers of science. Philosophy of biology developed in part out of dissatisfaction with some of the canonical ideas about explanation supplied by philosophy of science. These emphasized the role of formal theory, but explicit theories are notable for their absence from biology. In recent years some philosophers have sought to account for explanation in terms of mechanisms, but this raises the issue of the extent to which biological systems such as cells can be thought of in mechanistic terms. How does the concept of mechanism relate to complexity and emergence, and what part do functional attributions play in biological explanation? I develop a perspective on explanation and understanding that tries to address these questions, in part by looking to findings from cognitive psychology concerning the role of imagination and visual thought. Overall I stress the metaphysically laden nature of biological knowledge.


The key research questions are
  1. How is explanation in biology to be understood philosophically?
  2. What constraints do the nature of biological systems such as the cell place on their intelligibility?
  3. Do attributions of, for example, mechanism, function, complexity and emergence relate to ontologically robust, objective features of the world beyond our minds, or should they be seen as making sense only in the context of our cognitive or other psychological capacities?


Study of relevant philosophical and scientific literature; philosophical reflection and analysis.

Policy implications

This project will assist philosophers, scientists and policy-makers in understanding how bio-ontological issues intersect with knowledge-making practices in contemporary bioscience.


Journal Articles

Powell, A. and Dupré, J., ‘From molecules to systems: the importance of looking both ways.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C (Biological and Biomedical Sciences), 2009. doi:10.1016/j.shpsc.2008.12.007

O'Malley, M.A., Powell, A., Davies, J. and Calvert, J., ‘Knowledge-making distinctions in synthetic biology.’ BioEssays 30(1), 2008, pp 57–65.

Calvert, J., and Powell, A., ‘Systems biology: the new genomics?’ Genomics Network, March 2007, pp 6-7.

Powell, A., O'Malley, M.A., Müller-Wille, S., Calvert, J. and Dupré, J., ‘Disciplinary baptisms: A comparison of the naming stories of genetics, molecular biology, genomics and systems biology.’ History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 29(1), 2007, pp 5–32.


‘From Molecules to Systems or Beware of the Dogma’ – presentation given at first European Graduate Meeting in the Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Gorino Sullam, Italy, September 2008.

'Explanation and Imagination' – presentation given at the Postgraduate Conference of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Exeter University, May 2008.

'Cellular Biological Systems: Structure Meets Emergence' – presentation given at ESRC Genomics Network meeting Genomics and Society - Today's Answers, Tomorrow's Questions, London, October 2007.

Delivered presentation at a session I organised on emergence and systems approaches at ISHPSSB 2007 Conference, Exeter, July 2007.

'Synthetic Biology: Constructive Tensions', poster presented at Synthetic Biology 3.0, Zurich (attended as recipient of a PhD Fellowship award), June 2007.

‘Synthetic biology - biology, but not as we know it?’ - presentation at Egenis (within the programme of weekly seminar talks), May 2007.

Philosophies of emergence - presentation given at Egenis Workshop on Philosophy of Systems Biology, December 2006.

Presentation on philosophical aspects of systems biology to ESRC Forum visitors, November 2006