When imprecision is a good thing, or how imprecise concepts facilitate integration in biology

Abstract

Contrary to the common-sense view and positivist aspirations, scientific concepts are often imprecise. Many of these concepts are ambiguous, vague, or have an under-specified meaning (Gillon 1990). In this paper, I discuss how imprecise concepts promote integration in biology and thus benefit science. Previous discussions of this issue focus on the concepts of molecular gene and evolutionary novelty (Brigandt in Synthese 177:19–40, 2010; Fox Keller in The century of the gene, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2000; Love in Philos Sci 75:874–886, 2008; Waters in Philos Sci 61:163–185, 1994). The concept of molecular gene helps biologists integrate explanatory practices, while the notion of evolutionary novelty helps them integrate research questions into an interdisciplinary problem (Brigandt and Love in J Exp Zool Part B Mol Dev Evol 318:417–427, 2012; Waters, in: Galavotti, Dieks, Gonzalez, Hartmann, Uebel, Weber (eds) New directions in the philosophy of science, Springer, Dordrecht, 2014). In what follows, I compare molecular gene and evolutionary novelty to another imprecise concept, namely biological lineage. This concept promotes two other types of scientific integration: it helps biologists integrate theoretical principles and methodologies into different areas of biology. The concept of biological lineage facilitates these types of integration because it is broad and under-specified in ways that the concepts of molecular gene and evolutionary novelty are not. Hence, I use the concept of biological lineage as a case study to reveal types of integration that have been overlooked by philosophers. This case study also shows that even very imprecise concepts can be beneficial to scientific practice.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In this paper, I treat concepts (notions) rather than terms as precise or imprecise. This choice might seem odd. Concepts are usually taken to be contents, mental representations or abstract objects, while terms are linguistic items (usually words and expressions) (Margolis and Laurence 2019). I talk about imprecise concepts rather than terms to avoid misleading the reader into thinking that this paper concerns how specific words and their enunciation benefit science. Instead, as I make clear in the following pages, this paper is about how the variation and under-specification of meaning benefits science. When writing on this topic, philosophers of science usually also invoke concepts rather than terms (Ereshefsky 1992; Kitcher 1992; Brigandt 2010). In any case, choice does not matter to my argument. The same argument about meaning can be made irrespective of whether one attributes imprecision to concepts, terms, or to the use of terms. For a similar point, see Brigandt (2010, p. 25).

  2. 2.

    Ambiguity, vagueness, and sense-generality are distinct types of imprecision. A concept can have one type of imprecision without necessarily having the other types. A concept is ambiguous if it receives multiple meanings. A concept is vague when its meaning or reference admits borderline cases, as when one tries to determine the reference class of “bald.” I define sense-generality in the following paragraphs. For now, it is important to recognize that a concept can have one type of imprecision without having the others. For example, the concept of bald is vague, but it is not ambiguous.

  3. 3.

    So described, sense-generality contrasts with the other, more common types of imprecision. Sense-generality happens when a concept is associated with a single meaning that is overly general. For instance, users of “evolutionary novelty” imply a single, overarching meaning that does not necessarily admit borderline cases of reference. Hence, this concept is overly general without exhibiting ambiguity or vagueness. One might be tempted to treat sense-generality as something analogous to abstraction and idealization, while considering ambiguity and vagueness more problematic cases of imprecision. One might even be tempted to claim that sense-generality is not imprecision. Regardless of these analogies and terminological issues, it is important to keep sense-generality, ambiguity, and vagueness apart as they raise different challenges to communication and scientific work. In this paper, I focus only on sense-generality. Hence, the examples of imprecise scientific terms in this paper are examples of sense-generality.

  4. 4.

    Marc Ereshefsky made a similar proposal regarding the concept of species (1992).

  5. 5.

    While I argue that imprecise concepts help scientists integrate their work, I do not assume that scientists are (or have to be) aware of this role played by concepts. I also do not assume that concepts are very important to the day-to-day practice of scientists. The argument in this paper does not need to rely on these assumptions.

  6. 6.

    Kenneth C. Waters characterizes the concept of molecular gene as flexible rather than imprecise (Waters 2014). This is just a terminological difference. By adopting this terminology, Waters highlights that the concept of molecular gene can be specified differently to serve different research purposes. The focus of my paper is slightly different. My aim is to explain why this flexibility or imprecision is important.

  7. 7.

    Brigandt neither uses the term “imprecision” nor “sense generality” to characterize the concept of molecular gene. He also has his own way of characterizing the meaning of concepts. For instance, he might say that, what I call, “the general, under-specified meaning” of a concept is its “epistemic goal,” which is just one of the components that determine the content of a concept. However, the specifics of Brigandt’s terminology and theory of concepts does not influence or contradict my analysis.

  8. 8.

    Brigandt (2010, 2012) is primarily interested in discussing semantic variation over time rather than the benefits of imprecision to science or scientific integration. For this reason, one must recognize that Brigandt does not offer this characterization of scientific integration himself. Yet, this characterization follows from his analysis of the concept of molecular gene. Hence, one of the minor goals of my paper is to make explicit how Brigandt’s work establishes a relation between that concept and scientific integration.

  9. 9.

    This ambiguity corresponds to the distinction between paraphyletic and monophyletic groups (Ereshefsky 2001). While the former type of group contains only some descents plus their common ancestor (e.g., the lineage of reptiles), the latter type of group contains all descents and their common ancestor (e.g., the lineage of Amniotes).

  10. 10.

    However, a change in the concept could be inspired by discoveries of gene transfer among mitochondrial DNA.

  11. 11.

    This is an oversimplified formulation of the analogous principles for phylogenetics and developmental biology. An adequate formulation of these principles requires us to qualify what counts as the relevant type of similarity for each of them. Still, this qualification does not matter in the context of my discussion since I only aim to show that developmental biology adopts analogous principles and methods coming from phylogenetics.

  12. 12.

    Imprecise concepts might benefit science in various ways. As one of my reviewers points out, imprecise concepts can engender debates that ultimately lead to clarifying issues and potentially leading to new, refined concepts. The concept of homology might be one example (Ereshefsky 2012; Wagner 2018).

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Acknowledgements

I thank Marc Ereshefsky, Alan Love, Ingo Brigandt, and two anonymous reviewers for comments on early versions of this paper. I thank the Izaak Waltom Killam Memorial Scholarship for funding this research during my PhD at the University of Calgary.

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Correspondence to Celso Neto.

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Neto, C. When imprecision is a good thing, or how imprecise concepts facilitate integration in biology. Biol Philos 35, 58 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-020-09774-y

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Keywords

  • Biological lineage
  • Molecular gene
  • Evolutionary novelty
  • Scientific integration
  • Collaboration