- Philosophy of Experimental Biology
Few and far between are philosophers who take experimental practice seriously as the stuff of science. There is, of course, more to science than experiment, and there are indeed fields of theoretical science (some areas of physics and biology, for instance) in which experiment plays little if any role. Several noteworthy exceptions come to mind, especially Ian Hacking, Kenneth Schaffner, and William Wimsatt, three of the most notable philosophers for whom experimental practice matters as much as any other dimension of science. Wimsatt (1994), for instance, worries about philosophical errors resultant from "distancing oneself too far from the nitty-gritty details of actual theory, actual inferences from actual data, the actual conditions under which we posited and detected entities, calibrated and 'burned in' instruments, identified and rejected artifacts, debugged programs and procedures, explained the mechanisms behind regularities, judged correlations to be spurious," and so on (p. 208). Yet in reading most philosophers of science, one may be forgiven for believing that scientists are thinkers, not doers; that scientific practice is sterile and orderly, not messy and muddled; that there is a scientific method, not a patchwork of methods, strategies, tools, and techniques. [End Page 158]
Historians and science studies scholars (for example, Robert Kohler, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger) have long since attended to these aspects of science, the manifold complexity of its material culture. Now, a cohort of analytic philosophers are joining their ranks. Marcel Weber is one exemplar of this emerging trend. Weber's Philosophy of Experimental Biology exemplifies the consistently high quality of the Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology series. Like most works of analytic philosophy, Weber's book is challenging. He focuses on select examples of classic and contemporary experiments in biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology, microbiology, developmental biology, and neurobiology as a lens through which to explore some traditional themes in metaphysics and the general philosophy of science (such as explanation, reductionism, causation, discovery, and scientific realism).
While perhaps inaccessible to many practicing scientists, science scholars will find much to engage with, and much to disagree with, in this interesting book. For example, Weber is scathingly (and sometimes unfairly) critical of many of those who, before him, have studied the nature of experimental science. Nonetheless, the book is a welcome contribution to this bourgeoning literature.
Chapter 1 is the introduction, providing a succinct overview of the book and of the author's unique perspective on some of the material. Chapter 2 deals with an old (ca. 1950s) example from neurobiology, how to explain the mechanism of action potentials (nerve signal propagation). Mechanisms are a hot topic in the philosophy of science, and it is useful to explore classic examples in light of this new material. Chapter 3 turns to the question of scientific discovery, focusing in part on another old example, Krebs's discovery of the urea cycle in 1932. In Chapters 4 and 5, Weber addresses another historical example, biochemistry's oxidative phosphorylation controversy of the 1960s and 1970s; he usefully contrasts a traditional focus on hypothesis testing with more recent explorations of "experimental systems" within which specific hypotheses are more or less irrelevant. Weber turns in Chapter 6 to the use of model organisms in experimental biology, focusing especially on the adoption of the fruit fly Drosophila in molecular biology (where it joins the ranks of the microorganisms on which molecular biology was built). Unfortunately, here Weber offers a rather simplistic account based almost entirely on linguistic analysis of metaphors, rather than engaging any of the relevant scientific literature on this topic.
Chapter 7 deals with conceptual change in science, especially conceptual change regarding the meaning of "gene" throughout the past 100 years. In Chapter 8, Weber deals with the role of genes (whatever they are) in development. His discussion is peculiar, focusing on a set of views that have received only moderate attention in the sciences: developmental systems theory (DST). I count myself amongst the proponents of DST and was intellectually prepared to meet a strong challenge from Weber. Alas, I was sorely disappointed to...