Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 5, pp 705-721

First online:

Diagrams as locality aids for explanation and model construction in cell biology

  • Nicholaos JonesAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, University of Alabama in Huntsville Email author 
  • , Olaf WolkenhauerAffiliated withDepartment of Systems Biology and Bioinformatics, University of RostockStellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), Wallenberg Research Centre, Stellenbosch University

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Using as case studies two early diagrams that represent mechanisms of the cell division cycle, we aim to extend prior philosophical analyses of the roles of diagrams in scientific reasoning, and specifically their role in biological reasoning. The diagrams we discuss are, in practice, integral and indispensible elements of reasoning from experimental data about the cell division cycle to mathematical models of the cycle’s molecular mechanisms. In accordance with prior analyses, the diagrams provide functional explanations of the cell cycle and facilitate the construction of mathematical models of the cell cycle. But, extending beyond those analyses, we show how diagrams facilitate the construction of mathematical models, and we argue that the diagrams permit nomological explanations of the cell cycle. We further argue that what makes diagrams integral and indispensible for explanation and model construction is their nature as locality aids: they group together information that is to be used together in a way that sentential representations do not.


Cell biology Diagram Explanation Locality aid Model construction