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Tracing organizing principles: Learning from the history of systems biology

Green, Sara and Wolkenhauer , Olaf (2013) Tracing organizing principles: Learning from the history of systems biology. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 35. pp. 553-576.

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Abstract

With the emergence of systems biology the notion of organizing principles is being highlighted as a
key research aim. Researchers attempt to ‘reverse engineer’ the functional organization of
biological systems using methodologies from mathematics, engineering and computer science while
taking advantage of data produced by new experimental techniques. While systems biology is a
relatively new approach, the quest for general principles of biological organization dates back to
systems theoretic approaches in early and mid-20th century. The aim of this paper is to draw on this
historical background in order to increase the understanding of the motivation behind the systems
theoretic approach and to clarify different epistemic aims within systems biology. We pinpoint key
aspects of earlier approaches that also underlie the current practice. These are i) the focus on
relational and system-level properties, ii) the inherent critique of reductionism and fragmentation of
knowledge resulting from overspecialization, and iii) the insight that the ideal of formulating
abstract organizing principles is complementary to, rather than conflicting with, the aim of
formulating detailed explanations of biological mechanisms. We argue that looking back not only
helps us understand the current practice but also points to possible future directions for systems
biology.


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Item Type: Published Article or Volume
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Green, Sara
Wolkenhauer , Olaf
Keywords: systems biology, organizing principles, general systems theory, design principles, mathematical modeling
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology > Systematics
General Issues > Explanation
General Issues > Models and Idealization
General Issues > Reductionism/Holism
Depositing User: Dr. Sara Green
Date Deposited: 18 Sep 2014 14:02
Last Modified: 18 Sep 2014 14:02
Item ID: 11031
Journal or Publication Title: History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology > Systematics
General Issues > Explanation
General Issues > Models and Idealization
General Issues > Reductionism/Holism
Date: 2013
Page Range: pp. 553-576
Volume: 35
URI: http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/id/eprint/11031

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