Understanding Biological Mechanisms: Using Illustrations from Circadian Rhythm Research

  • William Bechtel
Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 1)


In many fields of biology, researchers explain a phenomenon by characterizing the responsible mechanism. This requires identifying the candidate mechanism, decomposing it into its parts and operations, recomposing it so as to understand how it is organized and its operations orchestrated to generate the phenomenon, and situating it in its environment. Mechanistic researchers have developed sophisticated tools for decomposing mechanisms but new approaches, including modeling, are increasingly being invoked to recompose mechanisms when they involve nonsequential organization of nonlinear operations. The results often are dynamical mechanistic explanations. The steps in mechanistic research are illustrated using research on circadian rhythms.


Circadian Rhythm Circadian Clock Mechanistic Explanation Circadian Oscillation Constant Darkness 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I thank Kostas Kampourakis and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments and suggestions that improved this essay. Research for this chapter was supported both by a grant from the Dean of Arts and Sciences at UCSD and by the National Science Foundation (USA) under Project Number 1127640.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Center for ChronobiologyUniversity of CaliforniaLa Jolla, San DiegoUSA

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