TOPICS IN PHILOSOPHY OF BIOLOGY
In this seminar we will read both philosophy and biology concerning issues that have led to the development of a new discipline 'systems biology.' Robustness is a system level property of central significance for systems biology. Robustness can refer to the character of a theory or explanation, the evidence for a theory or explanation or a feature of phenomena themselves. In this course it is the latter ' robustness as a feature of complex phenomena ' that we will examine. Kitano (2002, science) suggests that robustness occurs in 'adaptation, which denotes the ability to cope with environmental changes; parameter insensitivity, which indicates a system's relative insensitivity to specific kinetic parameters; and graceful degradation, which reflects the characteristic slow degradation of a system's functions after damage, rather than catastrophic failure.' How does a system maintain robustness, how does robustness evolve? How does robustness analysis affect our understanding of causality in flexible networks, modularity, and feedback control, as well as the empirical access to this form of dynamic stability? We will explore a wide variety of examples from bacterial chemotaxis to brain reorganization. In addition to robustness, biological systems also display multi-level organization, and are subject to multi-level explanations. We will consider alternative views about the relationships among the levels, and how experimental and explanatory strategies manage the multiple levels. For example, we will investigate if system-level properties are emergent and whether causal mechanisms can be multi-level.