, Volume 20, Issue 2-3, pp 257-269

Explanation in Two Dimensions: Diagrams and Biological Explanation

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Abstract

Molecular biologists and biochemists often use diagrams to present hypotheses. Analysis of diagrams shows that their content can be expressed with linguistic representations. Why do biologists use visual representations instead? One reason is simple comprehensibility: some diagrams present information which is readily understood from the diagram format, but which would not be comprehensible if the same information was expressed linguistically. But often diagrams are used even when concise, comprehensible linguistic alternatives are available. I explain this phenomenon by showing why diagrammatic representation is especially well suited for a particular kind of explanation common in molecular biology and biochemistry: namely, functional analysis, in which a capacity of the system is explained in terms of capacities of its component parts.