Reductionism in Biology

Abstract

Explanatory and methodological reductionism in biology emphasises the importance of building explanations and pursuing research at ever‐deeper levels of organisation. Integrationism, in contrast, emphasises the importance of building explanations at multiple levels of organisation or utilising findings from multiple scientific fields. Some of the perceived advantages of reduction are reviewed, but it is noted that reductionist tendencies are prone to biases and distortions in the description of biological systems. Attention to integrative strategies aids in avoiding the biases and distortions that reductionist strategies are prone to produce. Integration takes different forms: integrating levels, integrating temporally extended mechanisms, and integrating findings from different fields to solve a particular problem. One should look up and around, not just down. Integration is illustrated with cases from evolutionary theory and genetics.

Key Concepts

  • Reductionist research strategies have advantages in biology, whereas biases that they introduce can be countered by employing integrative strategies.
  • Reductive research strategies reveal hidden mechanisms, but neglect their context.
  • Multilevel integration provides a full explanatory account of a phenomenon.
  • Integrative strategies bridge different levels and different scientific fields to solve scientific problems.
  • Integrative strategies tie together sub‐mechanisms within a temporally extended mechanism.

Keywords: reduction; reductionism; integration; levels; mechanism; problem‐solving

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Web Links

Adaptationist Claims – Conceptual Problems, http://mrw.interscience.wiley.com/emrw/9780470015902/els/article/a0003451/current/html#references

Caenorhabditis elegans as an Experimental Organism, http://mrw.interscience.wiley.com/emrw/9780470015902/els/article/a0000564/current/html

Philosophy of Molecular Biology, http://mrw.interscience.wiley.com/emrw/9780470015902/els/article/a0003448/current/html

Philosophy of Selection: Units and Levels, http://mrw.interscience.wiley.com/emrw/9780470015902/els/article/a0003463/current/html

Philosophy of the Life Sciences, http://mrw.interscience.wiley.com/emrw/9780470015902/els/article/a0003449/current/html

Reduction: A Philosophical Analysis, http://mrw.interscience.wiley.com/emrw/9780470015902/els/article/a0003460/current/html

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Darden, Lindley(Jul 2016) Reductionism in Biology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003356.pub2]