Theories, Models, and Equations in Biology: The Heuristic Search for Emergent Simplifications in Neurobiology

Publication Year:
Usage 806
Downloads 806
Repository URL:
Schaffner, Kenneth
conference paper description
This paper begins with a review of some claims made by biologists such as Waddington, von Bertalanffy, and others, that biology should seek general theories similar to those found in physics. I disagree with that view, and describe an alternative framework for biological theories as collections of prototypical interlevel models that can be extrapolated by analogy to different organisms. To exemplify this position, I look in detail at the development of the Hodgkin-Huxley giant squid model for action potentials. The Hodgkin-Huxley strategy uses equations, but in specialized ways involving heuristic approximations, to build their model, which is here viewed as an “emergent simplification.” Very current elaborations of the Hodgkin-Huxley model, including Hille’s, utilize gene “superfamily” language to license generalization from one channel type to the others, and indicate that the Hodgkin-Huxley model is interpretable as an emergent unifier. Emergent unifiers, which require simplifications of a variety of sorts, represent an application of the types of heuristics discussed in Wimsatt’s writings on reduction, but with a twist: In the interpretation given them in the present paper, the heuristics are utilized to generate emergent rather than reductive explanations.