Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 21, Issue 5, pp 667–702

Aggregate, composed, and evolved systems: Reductionistic heuristics as means to more holistic theories


DOI: 10.1007/s10539-006-9059-1

Cite this article as:
Wimsatt, W.C. Biol Philos (2006) 21: 667. doi:10.1007/s10539-006-9059-1


Richard Levins’ distinction between aggregate, composed and evolved systems acquires new significance as we recognize the importance of mechanistic explanation. Criteria for aggregativity provide limiting cases for absence of organization, so through their failure, can provide rich detectors for organizational properties. I explore the use of failures of aggregativity for the analysis of mechanistic systems in diverse contexts. Aggregativity appears theoretically desireable, but we are easily fooled. It may be exaggerated through approximation, conditions of derivation, and extrapolating from some conditions of decomposition illegtimately to others. Evolved systems particularly may require analyses under alternative complementary decompositions. Exploring these conditions helps us to better understand the strengths and limits of reductionistic methods.


Aggregativity Heuristics Functional localization fallacies Reductionism Mechanism Complexity Intersubstitutability Nothing-but-ism Decomposability Invariance Richard Levins 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Committee on Evolutionary Biology and Committee on the Conceptual Foundations of ScienceUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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