Mechanists Must be Holists Too! Perspectives from Circadian Biology.

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Journal of the history of biology, ISSN: 1573-0387, Vol: 49, Issue: 4, Page: 705-731

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Bechtel, William
Springer Nature, Springer
Agricultural and Biological Sciences, Arts and Humanities
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The pursuit of mechanistic explanations in biology has produced a great deal of knowledge about the parts, operations, and organization of mechanisms taken to be responsible for biological phenomena. Holist critics have often raised important criticisms of proposed mechanistic explanations, but until recently holists have not had alternative research strategies through which to advance explanations. This paper argues both that the results of mechanistic strategies has forced mechanists to confront ways in which whole systems affect their components and that new representational and modeling strategies are providing tools for understanding these effects of whole systems upon components. Drawing from research on the mechanism responsible for circadian rhythms in mammals, I develop two examples in which mechanistic analysis is being integrated into a more holist perspective: research revealing intercellular integration of circadian mechanisms with those involved in cell metabolism and research revealing that stable␣rhythms are dependent on how individual cells in the suprachiasmatic nucleus synchronize with each other to generate regular rhythms. Tools such as network diagramming and computational modeling are providing means to integrate mechanistic models into accounts of whole systems.

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