Object Spaces: An Organizing Strategy for Biological Theorizing


A classic analytic approach to biological phenomena seeks to refine definitions until classes are sufficiently homogenous to support prediction and explanation, but this approach founders on cases where a single process produces objects with similar forms but heterogeneous behaviors. I introduce object spaces as a tool to tackle this challenging diversity of biological objects in terms of causal processes with well-defined formal properties. Object spaces have three primary components: (1) a combinatorial biological process such as protein synthesis that generates objects with parts that are modular, independent, and organized according to an invariant syntax; (2) a notion of “distance” that relates the objects according to rules of change over time as found in nature or useful for algorithms; (3) mapping functions defined on the space that map its objects to other spaces or apply an evaluative criterion to measure an important quality, such as parsimony or biochemical function. Once defined, an object space can be used to represent and simulate the dynamics of phenomena on multiple scales; it can also be used as a tool for predicting higher-order properties of the objects, including stitching together series of causal processes. Object spaces are the basis for a strategy of theorizing, discovery, and analysis in biology: as heuristic idealizations of biology, they help us transform inchoate, intractable problems into articulated, well-structured ones. Developing an object space is a research strategy with a long, successful history under many other names, and it offers a unifying but not overreaching approach to biological theory.

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Correspondence to Beckett Sterner.

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Sterner, B. Object Spaces: An Organizing Strategy for Biological Theorizing. Biol Theory 4, 280–286 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1162/biot.2009.4.3.280

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  • causal process
  • combinatorics
  • fitness landscape
  • heuristics
  • morphospace
  • sequence space