, Volume 193, Issue 3, pp 873–907 | Cite as

Stem cells and systems models: clashing views of explanation



This paper examines a case of failed interdisciplinary collaboration, between experimental stem cell research and theoretical systems biology. Recently, two groups of theoretical biologists have proposed dynamical systems models as a basis for understanding stem cells and their distinctive capacities. Experimental stem cell biologists, whose work focuses on manipulation of concrete cells, tissues and organisms, have largely ignored these proposals. I argue that ‘failure to communicate’ in this case is rooted in divergent views of explanation: the theoretically-inclined modelers are committed to a version of the covering-law view, while experimental stem cell biologists aim at mechanistic explanations. I propose a way to reconcile these two explanatory approaches to cell development, and discuss the significance of this result for interdisciplinary collaboration in systems biology and beyond.


Explanation Mechanisms Covering law Stem cells  Systems biology Interdisciplinarity 



This paper has benefited from comments by William Bechtel, Sara Green, Matt Haber, Oleg Igoshin, Johannes Jaeger, Lucie Laplane, Miles MacLeod, Elijah Millgram, Miriam Thalos, and two anonymous reviewers for Synthese. Funding was provided by a Faculty Innovation Fellowship from the Rice University Division of Humanities, and a Scholar’s Award from the National Science Foundation (Award No. 1354515).


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of UtahSalt Lake CityUSA

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