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Calculating life: Duelling discourses in interdisciplinary systems biology
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (2) 155-163
A high profile context in which physics and biology meet today is in the new field of systems biology. Systems biology is a fascinating subject for sociological investigation because the demands of interdisciplinary collaboration have brought epistemological issues and debates front and centre in discussions amongst systems biologists in conference settings, in publications, and in laboratory coffee rooms. One could argue that systems biologists are conducting their own philosophy of science. This paper explores the epistemic aspirations of the field by drawing on interviews with scientists working in systems biology, attendance at systems biology conferences and workshops, and visits to systems biology laboratories. It examines the discourses of systems biologists, looking at how they position their work in relation to previous types of biological inquiry, particularly molecular biology. For example, they raise the issue of reductionism to distinguish systems biology from molecular biology. This comparison with molecular biology leads to discussions about the goals and aspirations of systems biology, including epistemic commitments to quantification, rigor and predictability. Some systems biologists aspire to make biology more similar to physics and engineering by making living systems calculable, modelable and ultimately predictable—a research programme that is perhaps taken to its most extreme form in systems biology’s sister discipline: synthetic biology. Other systems biologists, however, do not think that the standards of the physical sciences are the standards by which we should measure the achievements of systems biology, and doubt whether such standards will ever be applicable to ‘dirty, unruly living systems’. This paper explores these epistemic tensions and reflects on their sociological dimensions and their consequences for future work in the life sciences.
Systems biology; Interdisciplinarity; Molecular biology; Epistemic aspirations