Control Mechanisms: Explaining the Integration and Versatility of Biological Organisms

Adaptive Behavior (2022)
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Living organisms act as integrated wholes to maintain themselves. Individual actions can each be explained by characterizing the mechanisms that perform the activity. But these alone do not explain how various activities are coordinated and performed versatilely. We argue that this depends on a specific type of mechanism, a control mechanism. We develop an account of control by examining several extensively studied control mechanisms operative in the bacterium E. coli. On our analysis, what distinguishes a control mechanism from other mechanisms is that it relies on measuring one or more variables, which results in setting constraints in the control mechanism that determine its action on flexible constraints in other mechanisms. In the most basic arrangement, the measurement process directly determines the action of the control mechanism, but in more complex arrangements signals mediate between measurements and effectors. This opens the possibility of multiple responses to the same measurement and responses based on multiple measurements. It also allows crosstalk, resulting in networks of control mechanisms. Such networks integrate the behaviors of the organism but also present a challenge in tailoring responses to particular measurements. We discuss how integrated activity can still result in differential, versatile, responses.

Author Profiles

Leonardo Bich
University of the Basque Country
William Bechtel
University of California, San Diego


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