Growing Explanations

Historical Perspectives on Recent Science

Growing Explanations

Science and Cultural Theory

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Book Pages: 360 Illustrations: 11 figures Published: November 2004

Science and Technology Studies > Philosophy of Science

For much of the twentieth century scientists sought to explain objects and processes by reducing them to their components—nuclei into protons and neutrons, proteins into amino acids, and so on—but over the past forty years there has been a marked turn toward explaining phenomena by building them up rather than breaking them down. This collection reflects on the history and significance of this turn toward “growing explanations” from the bottom up. The essays show how this strategy—based on a widespread appreciation for complexity even in apparently simple processes and on the capacity of computers to simulate such complexity—has played out in a broad array of sciences. They describe how scientists are reordering knowledge to emphasize growth, change, and contingency and, in so doing, are revealing even phenomena long considered elementary—like particles and genes—as emergent properties of dynamic processes.

Written by leading historians and philosophers of science, these essays examine the range of subjects, people, and goals involved in changing the character of scientific analysis over the last several decades. They highlight the alternatives that fields as diverse as string theory, fuzzy logic, artificial life, and immunology bring to the forms of explanation that have traditionally defined scientific modernity. A number of the essays deal with the mathematical and physical sciences, addressing concerns with hybridity and the materials of the everyday world. Other essays focus on the life sciences, where questions such as “What is life?” and “What is an organism?” are undergoing radical re-evaluation. Together these essays mark the contours of an ongoing revolution in scientific explanation.

Contributors. David Aubin, Amy Dahan Dalmedico, Richard Doyle, Claus Emmeche, Peter Galison, Stefan Helmreich, Ann Johnson, Evelyn Fox Keller, Ilana Löwy, Claude Rosental, Alfred Tauber


“[T]his stimulating volume provides an interesting mirror of its subject matter. The dynamic interplay between essays may well capture the complexity of contemporary scientific practice better than any isolated chapter on its own. Hopefully this s interesting volume will inspire further comparative studies.” — David Kaiser , American Historical Review

“This important and provocative volume makes a persuasive case for the claim that complex phenomena require a particular kind of understanding, one that is historical in nature, and for the further proposal that the world will turn out to be complex all the way down.” — Jessica Riskin , Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"[F]ascinating. . . . Wise's collection provides many . . . delights. . . . I recommend this volume to all those interested in viewing the development of science and technology from an interesting new perspective." — Catherine Westfall, Isis

Growing Explanations registers the profound shift in many domains of science—from chaos theory to functional genomics—giving epistemological priority to complex and emergent phenomena. Anyone interested in the nature of contemporary science, especially the central role of the computer, will find this a fascinating read.” — Angela N. H. Creager, Princeton University

“M. Norton Wise has orchestrated a volume of cutting-edge work exploring the sea change in contemporary models of explanation fueled by advances in computation, simulation, and the new sciences of complexity. The authors illustrate how, across a wide spectrum of disciplines, new strategies based on ‘growing explanations’ to understand the emergent behaviors of systems constructed from the bottom up are replacing the traditional ‘reductionist’ credo of explaining complex phenomena in terms of simple entities. An important and timely volume for anyone interested in science studies.” — Timothy Lenoir, author of Instituting Science: The Cultural Production of Scientific Disciplines


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

M. Norton Wise is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a coauthor of Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin and the editor of The Values of Precision.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction: dynamincs all the way up / M. Norton Wise 1

Part I Mathematics, physics, and engineering

Elementary particles? `

1. Mirror symmetry: persons, values, and objects / Peter Galison 23

Nonlinear dynamics and chaos

2. Chaos, disorder, and mixing: a new fin-de-siecle image of science? / Amy Dahan Dalmedico 67

3. Forms of explanation in the catastrophe theory of Rene Thjom: topology, morphogenesis, and structuralism / David Aubin 95

Coping with complexity in technology

4. From Boeing to Berkeley: civil engineers, the cold war, and the origins of finite element analysis / Ann Johnson 133

5. Fuzzyfying the world: social practices of showing the properties of fuzzy logic / Claude Rosental 159

Part II The organism, the self, and (artificial) life


6. Marrying the premodern to the postmodern: computers and organisms after World War II / Evelyn Fox Keller 181


7. Immunology and the enigma of selfhood / Alfred I. Tauber 201

8. Immunology of AIDS: growning explanations and developing instruments / Ilana Lowy 222

Artificial Life

9. Artificial life support: some nodes in the Alife ribotype / Richard Doyle 251

10. The word for world is computer: simulating second natures in artificial life / Stefan Helmreich 275

11. Constructing and explaining emergence in artificial life: on paradigms, ontodefinitions, and general knowledge in biology / Claus Emmeche 301

Afterword 327

Contributors 333

Index 337
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3319-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3307-4
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