Scientific Method and Experimentation in Biology


Scientific method in biology has been of great interest since the time of the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the fourth century before the common era. Generally, the aim has been to be like the physical sciences in being causal and increasingly showing biology as a topic governed by universal natural laws. However, there has always been a debate about the end‐directed nature of organisms, which seem to require explanations in terms of final causes. Although these were expelled from the physical sciences in the scientific revolution, they remained in biology until Darwin wrote the Origin of Species. Even after that, they remained but today can be seen to be natural and brought on by Darwin's mechanism of natural selection.

Key Concepts:

  • Aristotle had an organic view of nature that led him to value end‐directed thinking, in terms of final cause.

  • The Scientific Revolution introduced the mechanical metaphor, thus making final causes otiose.

  • George Cuvier argued that organisms cannot be brought fully under the mechanical metaphor and thus demand final‐cause thinking.

  • Charles Darwin spoke to final‐cause thinking through his mechanism of natural selection, although whether he eliminated such thinking is still debated.

  • The coming of molecular biology seemed a triumph of reductionist thinking and the mechanistic viewpoint, however, many think that organisms still require understanding over and beyond that one finds in the physical sciences.

Keywords: Charles Darwin; Georges Cuvier; Aristotle; final cause; Karl Popper; Stephen Jay Gould; organismic biology; mechanism


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Further Reading

Aristotle (1984a) De Generatione de Animalium. In: Jonathan B (ed.) The Complete Works of Aristotle, pp. 1111–1218. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Aristotle (1984b) De Partibus Animalium. In: Jonathan B (ed.) The Complete Works of Aristotle, pp. 1087–1110. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bacon F [1605] (1868) The Advancement of Learning. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bernard C (1957) An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. New York, NY: Dover.

Boyle R (1966) A disquisition about the final causes of natural things. In: Birch T (ed.) The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 5, pp. 392–444. Hildesheim: Georg Olms.

Cuvier G (1817) Le règne animal distribué d'aprés son organisation, pour servir de base à l'histoire naturelle des animaux et d'introduction à l'anatomie comparée. Paris: Déterville.

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Ruse, Michael(Oct 2014) Scientific Method and Experimentation in Biology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003455.pub2]