Causal graphs and biological mechanisms

In Marie I. Kaiser, Oliver Scholz, Daniel Plenge & Andreas Hüttemann (eds.), Explanation in the special sciences: The case of biology and history. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 55-86 (2014)
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Modeling mechanisms is central to the biological sciences – for purposes of explanation, prediction, extrapolation, and manipulation. A closer look at the philosophical literature reveals that mechanisms are predominantly modeled in a purely qualitative way. That is, mechanistic models are conceived of as representing how certain entities and activities are spatially and temporally organized so that they bring about the behavior of the mechanism in question. Although this adequately characterizes how mechanisms are represented in biology textbooks, contemporary biological research practice shows the need for quantitative, probabilistic models of mechanisms, too. In this paper we argue that the formal framework of causal graph theory is well-suited to provide us with models of biological mechanisms that incorporate quantitative and probabilistic information. On the ba-sis of an example from contemporary biological practice, namely feedback regulation of fatty acid biosynthesis in Brassica napus, we show that causal graph theoretical models can account for feedback as well as for the multi-level character of mechanisms. However, we do not claim that causal graph theoretical representations of mechanisms are advantageous in all respects and should replace common qualitative models. Rather, we endorse the more balanced view that causal graph theoretical models of mechanisms are useful for some purposes, while being insufficient for others.

Author Profiles

Marie I. Kaiser
Bielefeld University
Alexander Gebharter
Marche Polytechnic University


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