Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp 179–213 | Cite as

Waddington redux: models and explanation in stem cell and systems biology

  • Melinda Bonnie FaganEmail author


Stem cell biology and systems biology are two prominent new approaches to studying cell development. In stem cell biology, the predominant method is experimental manipulation of concrete cells and tissues. Systems biology, in contrast, emphasizes mathematical modeling of cellular systems. For scientists and philosophers interested in development, an important question arises: how should the two approaches relate? This essay proposes an answer, using the model of Waddington’s landscape to triangulate between stem cell and systems approaches. This simple abstract model represents development as an undulating surface of hills and valleys. Originally constructed by C. H. Waddington to visually explicate an integrated theory of genetics, development and evolution, the landscape model can play an updated unificatory role. I examine this model’s structure, representational assumptions, and uses in all three contexts, and argue that explanations of cell development require both mathematical models and concrete experiments. On this view, the two approaches are interdependent, with mathematical models playing a crucial but circumscribed role in explanations of cell development.


Stem cells Systems biology Epigenetic landscape CH Waddington Models Mechanistic explanation 



Thanks to Amy Wagers, Irv Weissman, Oleg Igoshin, Elihu Gerson and two anonymous reviewers for Biology and Philosophy for discussion and comments. The paper has also benefited from comments by session participants at the 2010 meeting of &HPS3 (Indiana University), the Workshop on Modeling and Simulation (Pittsburgh, March 2011), the 2011 meeting of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice (University of Exeter), and the EFS Systems Biology Workshop at Aarhus University in August 2011. Funding for this research was generously provided by the Humanities Research Center at Rice University’s Collaborative Research Fellowship (2009–2010), and Faculty Innovation Fund (2010–2012).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyRice UniversityHoustonUSA

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