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Systems in biology – how can earlier theoretical approaches contribute to current versions of systems biology?

The main goal of the proposed research is to make use of earlier biological system approaches to help develop modern system accounts in the life sciences. Special emphasis is laid on work of the pioneering system thoughts of Paul Weiss and Ludwig von Bertalanffy and their potential contribution to the growing field of "systems biology." Recent articles on system approaches and on systems biology in particular show that Weiss is rarely mentioned and that credit is only occasionally given to Bertalanffy, although the latter is seen as a precursor of systems biology. Both authors have provided a considerable amount of theoretical work towards system concepts in biology. This work must be consulted and adapted to modern scientific currents in order to tackle the present scientific problems and open questions. The premise is that these resources have a strong potential for modern system thinking in biology, and the aim of this project is therefore to make them fruitful.

The present project has two principal purposes. On the one hand, basic characteristics of systems biology will be reflected and made explicit by confronting them with early system approaches in biology. Our approach involves analysing firstly the scientific problems on which systems biology is focusing, but also motivations, concepts, methods, and assumptions of today’s research framework based on the former "system theory of life" or the "organismic approach." This is mainly pursued in order to clarify the present state of systems biology. On the other hand, we expect to contribute concepts and methods to a (theoretical and empirical) research framework based on the findings obtained in pursuing the first purpose. The aim is to provide ways forward with regard to the problems being tackled in systems biology, inspired by early systems thought.

The research program is motivated by requests from both laboratorians and theoreticians. The laboratory scientists and experimentalists request an enrichment of the conceptual apparatus in order to deal with the empirically produced data. The theoreticians and philosophers emphasise that the explanatory power of systems biology is low and that several philosophical questions, both epistemological and ontological, remain open. This project will contribute to solving both problems.

The investigations will be based on research that dealt with the conceptual connection between Weiss and Bertalanffy, as well as on Bertalanffy’s early system thinking. It will be accomplished mainly in cooperation with Professor Olaf Wolkenhauer (Systems Biology and Bioinformatics, University of Rostock), Professor Ana Soto (Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston), the Rostock-based Centre for Logic, Theory and History of Science (ZLWWG), philosophers from the Philosophical Foundations of Systems Biology (PSBio) project, and the Vienna-based Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (BCSSS).

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