Philosophical Perspectives on the Engineering Approach in Biology: Living Machines?, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Philosophical Perspectives on the Engineering Approach in Biology

Living Machines?, 1st Edition

Edited by Sune Holm, Maria Serban


256 pages | 25 B/W Illus.

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Hardback: 9780815380788
pub: 2020-06-22
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Philosophical Perspectives on the Engineering Approach in Biology provides a philosophical examination of what has been called the most powerful metaphor in biology: The machine metaphor. The chapters collected in this volume discuss the idea that living systems can be understood through the lens of engineering methods and machine metaphors from both historical, theoretical, and practical perspectives.

In their contributions the authors examine questions about scientific explanation and methodology, the interrelationship between science and engineering, and the impact that the use of engineering metaphors in science may have for bioethics and science communication, such as the worry that its wide application reinforces public misconceptions of the nature of new biotechnology and biological life. The book also contains an introduction that describes the rise of the machine analogy and the many ways in which it plays a central role in fundamental debates about e.g. design, adaptation and reductionism in the philosophy of biology. 

The book will be useful as a core reading to professionals as well as graduate and undergraduate students in courses of philosophy of science and for life scientists taking courses in philosophy of science and bioethics.

Table of Contents


Sune Holm, Louisa Holt & Maria Serban

Part 1. Theoretical Issues

1. Restless Machines

Jessica Riskin

2. On Being the Right Size, Revisited: The Problem with Engineering Metaphors in Molecular Biology 

Daniel J. Nicholson

3. A Roomful of Robovacs: How to Think About Genetic Programs 

Brett Calcott   

4. Living Machines: The Extent and Limits of the Machine Metaphor 

William Bechtel

Part 2. Methodological Issues

5. Beyond Machine-Like Mechanisms 

Arnon Levy & William Bechtel 

6. Magnetized Memories: Analogies and Templates in Model Transfer 

Tarja Knuuttila & Andrea Loettgers

7. Biological Robustness: Design, Organization and Mechanism 

Maria Serban & Sara Green

Part 3. Societal Issues

8. The Machine Analogy in Bioethics 

Andreas Christiansen 

9. The Machine Metaphor in Science and Science Communication 

Sune Holm


About the Editors

Sune Holm is Associate Professor in Philosophy at the Department of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Copenhagen. His research mainly focuses on topics in ethics and philosophy of science relating to biology, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence.

Maria Serban is a Lecturer in Philosophy at University of East Anglia. She is a philosopher of science focusing on modelling practices in the life sciences.

About the Series

History and Philosophy of Biology

This series explores significant developments in the life sciences from historical and philosophical perspectives. Historical episodes include Aristotelian biology, Greek and Islamic biology and medicine, Renaissance biology, natural history, Darwinian evolution, Nineteenth-century physiology and cell theory, Twentieth-century genetics, ecology, and systematics, and the biological theories and practices of non-Western perspectives. Philosophical topics include individuality, reductionism and holism, fitness, levels of selection, mechanism and teleology, and the nature-nurture debates, as well as explanation, confirmation, inference, experiment, scientific practice, and models and theories vis-à-vis the biological sciences.

Authors are also invited to inquire into the "and" of this series. How has, does, and will the history of biology impact philosophical understandings of life? How can philosophy help us analyze the historical contingency of, and structural constraints on, scientific knowledge about biological processes and systems? In probing the interweaving of history and philosophy of biology, scholarly investigation could usefully turn to values, power, and potential future uses and abuses of biological knowledge.

The scientific scope of the series includes evolutionary theory, environmental sciences, genomics, molecular biology, systems biology, biotechnology, biomedicine, race and ethnicity, and sex and gender. These areas of the biological sciences are not silos, and tracking their impact on other sciences such as psychology, economics, and sociology, and the behavioral and human sciences more generally, is also within the purview of this series.

Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), and Visiting Scholar of Philosophy at Stanford University (2015-2016). He works in the philosophy of science and philosophy of biology and has strong interests in metaphysics, epistemology, and political philosophy, in addition to cartography and GIS, cosmology and particle physics, psychological and cognitive science, and science in general. Recent publications include "The Structure of Scientific Theories," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and "Race and Biology," The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race. His book with University of Chicago Press, When Maps Become the World, is forthcoming.

[email protected]

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology / General