Philosophy of systems biology

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Does systems biology need a philosophical foundation unique to itself, one that transcends that of science in general, the physical sciences in specific, and biology in particular?

Physical scientists inquire of the fundamental elements, processes, and organization of the universe, and biologists do the same in regard to the living world. Yet when it comes to the question, “What constitutes a living system?” — a cell, a multicellular organism, a community of species — the physical scientist can dissect the system into its organizational parts, and the biologist can offer detail and physiological and evolutionary perspective, but without the perspective and methodologies of systems biologists, they cannot represent a living system as the self-organized autonomous holistic entity we observe. Does systems biology, then, affirm the status of biology as a unique science with its own scientific and philosophical foundations? An excerpt from a book by one of the founders of system theory and systems biology, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, speaks to that question:[1]

Since the fundamental character of the living thing is its organization, the customary investigation of the single parts and processes, even the most thorough physico-chemical analysis, cannot provide a complete explanation of the vital phenomena. This investigation gives us no information about the co-ordination of the parts and processes in the complicated system of the living whole which constitutes the essential "nature" of the organism, and by which the reactions in the organism are distinguished from those in the test-tube. But no reason has been brought forward for supposing that the organization of the parts and the mutual adjustments of the vital processes cannot be treated as scientific problems. Thus, the chief task of biology must be to discover the laws of biological systems to which the ingredient parts and processes are subordinate. We regard this as the fundamental problem for modern biology. Since these laws cannot yet be formulated in physical and chemical terms, we are entitled to a biological formulation of them. In our view, the question of a final reducibility of such biological laws is of subordinate importance in view of the foregoing demand.[1]

If the 'laws' of biological systems speak to the systems' novel properties and behaviors, organizations and functions, transcending their ingredients, it would seem such laws lie outside the philosophical foundations of physics. Physics does not speak to the kinds of functional behavior observed in living systems. Physics does not study systems with levels of complexity as great as those found in living systems, or the emergence of autonomous agents self-organized and self-reproducing. A philosophy of physics, therefore, could not subordinate a philosophy of systems biology, which does address living behaviors that do not reside in the molecules that constitute them.[2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Bertalanffy L. (1932) Theoretische Biologie, Berlin: Bornträger, extracted from J. H. Woodger's 1933 translation, Modern Theories of Development: An Essay on Theoretical Biology. London: Oxford University Press, and cited in August Pi Suñer’s Classics of Biology. Charles M. Stern - transltr. Philosophical Library: New York. 1955.
  2. Fred C. Boogerd, Frank J. Bruggeman, lan-Hendrik S. Hofmeyr, Hans V. Westerhoff. (200x) "Towards philosophical foundations of Systems Biology: introduction". In: Systems Biology: Philosophical Foundations. editors: Fred C. Boogerd, Frank J. Bruggeman, lan-Hendrik S. Hofmeyr, Hans V. Westerhoff. Elsevier: Amsterdam. ISBN 978-0-444-52085-2. | Google Books preview.