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

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Biology and Philosophy, Vol: 30, Page: 629-652

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Green, Sara
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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.