Principled Mechanistic Explanations in Biology: A Case Study of Alzheimer's Disease


Following an analysis of the state of investigations and clinical outcomes in the Alzheimer's research field, I argue that the widely-accepted 'amyloid cascade' mechanistic explanation of Alzheimer's disease appears to be fundamentally incomplete. In this context, I propose that a framework termed 'principled mechanism' (PM) can help with remedying this problem. First, using a series of five 'tests', PM systematically compares different components of a given mechanistic explanation against a paradigmatic set of criteria, and hints at various ways of making the mechanistic explanation more 'complete'. These steps will be demonstrated using the amyloid explanation, and its missing or problematic mechanistic elements will be highlighted. Second, PM makes an appeal for the discovery and application of 'biological principles' (BPs), which approximate ceteris paribus laws and are operative at the level of a biological cell. As such, although thermodynamic, evolutionary, ecological and other laws or principles from chemistry and the broader life sciences could inform them, BPs should be considered ontologically unique. BPs could augment different facets of the mechanistic explanation but also allow further independent nomological explanation of the phenomenon. Whilst this overall strategy can be complementary to certain 'New Mechanist' approaches, an important distinction of the PM framework is its equal attention to the explanatory utility of biological principles. Lastly, I detail two hypothetical BPs, and show how they could each inform and improve the potentially incomplete mechanistic aspects of the amyloid explanation and also how they could provide independent explanations of the cellular features associated with Alzheimer's disease.

Author's Profile

Sepehr Ehsani
University College London


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