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FIVE ASSESSING THE EXPLANATORY POWER OF EPIGENETICS Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house. HENRI POINCARÉ, 1902 A scientist . . . who wants to understand as many aspects of his theory as possible, will adopt a pluralist methodology, he will compare theories with other theories rather than with “experience ,” “data,” or “facts,” and he will try to improve rather than discard the views that appear to lose in the competition. PAUL FEYERABEND, 1975 IN THE PREVIOUS CHAPTERS a number of central features of epigenetic explanation have been described. I showed how some of them differ from still widely accepted explanatory standards of traditional molecular biology and evolutionary biology. For example, in evolutionary biology, epigenetic explanations depart from orthodox explanation by emphasizing proximate causes rather than ultimate causes (see chap. 2). In molecular ▸ 169 ASSESSING THE EXPLANATORY POWER OF EPIGENETICS biology, a number of epigeneticists focus on “nonmechanistic” causal explanations . Such explanations provide less information about mechanisms that underlie causal dependencies (see chap. 3). There are two issues that have to be distinguished here: first, determining what it means for these epigenetic explanations to count as explanatory at all, and, second, addressing how good the explanations offered are. The former issue has already been addressed by invoking criteria like the invariance or heuristic value of explanations. Now I turn to the latter. This issue concerns the concept of explanatory power or value, not explanatoriness (or appropriateness) of explanation per se. For example, given the previous analysis here, various questions arise, such as “Are epigeneticists’ explanations better?” and “How can we evaluate the explanatory power of epigenetic explanations in contrast to standard molecular explanations entailing (more) mechanistic detail and prevailing evolutionary (i.e., ultimate cause) explanations?” This chapter answers these questions first by presenting a general contrastive framework suitable for evaluating the value of scientific explanations and second by applying this framework to the issue at hand. I show that the contrastive approach adopted here is able to give precise guidance about why and when epigenetic explanations are legitimately chosen (i.e., have more explanatory power) over other prevailing molecular and evolutionary explanations. Thus, it represents a crucial tool for an extended evolutionary synthesis seeking to integrate epigenetic explanations into a field of other explanatory accounts. WHAT EXPLANATORY POWER IS AND IS NOT Nowadays epigenetic explanations of development, inheritance, and evolution seem to be ubiquitous in modern biology. However, biologists have not reached any consensus on whether they should prefer these rather new explanations over other, more orthodox approaches addressing the same explanandum phenomena. This problem is one related to the concept of the value or power of explanations. This issue should not be confused with the so-called demarcation problem . The latter refers to the issue of how to distinguish scientific explanation (or scientific theory) from non- or pseudoscientific explanation (see Pigliucci and Boudry 2013). Popper (1935) famously argued that only scien- 170 ◂ ASSESSING THE EXPLANATORY POWER OF EPIGENETICS tific explanation can make testable and falsifiable predictions. 1 Others have claimed that the status of a scientific theory is (or should) depend on the amount of empirical evidential support or the formal structure of evidential confirmation (see, e.g., Carnap 1928) and that it is, at least to a certain degree, consistent in certain cases with the preexisting background knowledge and experimental results in a particular field. 2 Following the idea of “Occam’s razor,” one may even argue that scientists (should) seek the most parsimonious or economical explanation (Sober 1975). 3 These criteria of predictive capability, evidential support or structure, coherency or compatibility, and parsimony or simplicity should first and foremost be understood as referring to the scientific character of explanation . In other words, they constitute the (logical) structure of scientific explanation or, to put it in still other terms, the explanatoriness of science. However, the distinction between this concept of explanatoriness and that of explanatory power is not a clear-cut one. One might consider there to be a particular threshold above which explanations satisfying these criteria can legitimately be labeled “scientific.” Accordingly, those statements passing the threshold might be called “better” if they differ qualitatively or quantitatively in one or more of the above criteria. This problem of grasping the core of the concept of explanatory power and its distinctness from (simply) being an explanation becomes even more difficult, as the value of an explanation is sometimes...


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