The ontology of organisms: Mechanistic modules or patterned processes?

Biology and Philosophy 31 (5):639-662 (2016)
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Though the realm of biology has long been under the philosophical rule of the mechanistic magisterium, recent years have seen a surprisingly steady rise in the usurping prowess of process ontology. According to its proponents, theoretical advances in the contemporary science of evo-devo have afforded that ontology a particularly powerful claim to the throne: in that increasingly empirically confirmed discipline, emergently autonomous, higher-order entities are the reigning explanantia. If we are to accept the election of evo-devo as our best conceptualisation of the biological realm with metaphysical rigour, must we depose our mechanistic ontology for failing to properly “carve at the joints” of organisms? In this paper, I challenge the legitimacy of that claim: not only can the theoretical benefits offered by a process ontology be had without it, they cannot be sufficiently grounded without the metaphysical underpinning of the very mechanisms which processes purport to replace. The biological realm, I argue, remains one best understood as under the governance of mechanistic principles.

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Christopher J. Austin
Durham University


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