Biological Explanation

In Kostas Kampourakis (ed.), The Philosophy of Biology: A Companion for Educators. Springer. pp. 49-65 (2013)
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One of the central aims of science is explanation: scientists seek to uncover why things happen the way they do. This chapter addresses what kinds of explanations are formulated in biology, how explanatory aims influence other features of the field of biology, and the implications of all of this for biology education. Philosophical treatments of scientific explanation have been both complicated and enriched by attention to explanatory strategies in biology. Most basically, whereas traditional philosophy of science based explanation on derivation from scientific laws, there are many biological explanations in which laws play little or no role. Instead, the field of biology is a natural place to turn for support for the idea that causal information is explanatory. Biology has also been used to motivate mechanistic accounts of explanation, as well as criticisms of that approach. Ultimately, the most pressing issue about explanation in biology may be how to account for the wide range of explanatory styles encountered in the field. This issue is crucial, for the aims of biological explanation influence a variety of other features of the field of biology. Explanatory aims account for the continued neglect of some central causal factors, a neglect that would otherwise be mysterious. This is linked to the persistent use of models like evolutionary game theory and population genetic models, models that are simplified to the point of unreality. These explanatory aims also offer a way to interpret many biologists’ total commitment to one or another methodological approach, and the intense disagreements that result. In my view, such debates are better understood as arising not from different theoretical commitments, but commitments to different explanatory projects. Biology education would thus be enriched by attending to approaches to biological explanation, as well as the unexpected ways that these explanatory aims influence other features of biology. I suggest five lessons for teaching about explanation in biology that follow from the considerations of this chapter.

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Angela Potochnik
University of Cincinnati


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