What Constitutes an Explanation in Biology?

In Kostas Kampourakis & Tobias Uller (eds.), Philosophy of Science for Biologists. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2020)
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One of biology's fundamental aims is to generate understanding of the living world around—and within—us. In this chapter, I aim to provide a relatively nonpartisan discussion of the nature of explanation in biology, grounded in widely shared philosophical views about scientific explanation. But this discussion also reflects what I think is important for philosophers and biologists alike to appreciate about successful scientific explanations, so some points will be controversial, at least among philosophers. I make three main points: (1) causal relationships and broad patterns have often been granted importance to scientific explanations, and they are in fact both important; (2) some explanations in biology cite the components of or processes in systems that account for the systems’ features, whereas other explanations feature large-scale or structural causes that influence a system; and (3) there can be multiple different explanations of a given biological phenomenon, explanations that respond to different research aims and can thus be compatible with one another even when they may seem to disagree.
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