Biology & Philosophy

, 34:20 | Cite as

Isolability as the unifying feature of modularity

  • Lucas J. MatthewsEmail author


Although the concept of modularity is pervasive across fields and disciplines, philosophers and scientists use the term in a variety of different ways. This paper identifies two distinct ways of thinking about modularity, and considers what makes them similar and different. For philosophers of mind and cognitive science, cognitive modularity helps explain the capacities of brains to process sundry and distinct kinds of informational input. For philosophy of biology and evolutionary science, biological modularity helps explain the capacity of random evolutionary processes to give rise to highly complex and sophisticated biological systems. Although these different ways of thinking about modularity are largely distinct, this paper proposes a unifying feature common to both: isolability, or the capacity of subsystems to undergo changes without resulting in substantial changes to neighboring or interconnected subsystems.


Modularity Evolution Biological modules Cognitive modules Pluralism 



Above all else, Kenneth Blake Vernon played a pivotal role in the earliest stages of this project. He both helped formulate the idea for a paper that compared cognitive and biological concepts of modularity, and helped write sections of a first draft that did not make it to the final manuscript. Special thanks to Anya Plutynski for advising early stages of the project, reading multiple drafts and providing great feedback. Thanks as well for helpful comments from Juliana Gottschling, Lisa Hanh, Sarah Carol, Evan Giangrande, and Eric Turkheimer.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

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