In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Reductionism in Biology

  • Introduction
  • Historical Background

Philosophy Reductionism in Biology
Sahotra Sarkar, Alan Love, William Wimsatt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0359


Reductionism concerns a set of ontological and epistemological claims, and methodological strictures based on them, about the relationship between two different scientific domains. The critical assumption is that one of these domains is privileged over the other in the sense that the concepts, rules, laws, and other elements of the privileged domain can be used to specify, constitute, or account for those of the other “reduced” domain. This specification often consists of explanation, such that the “reducing” domain is epistemically privileged over the reduced one. Explanations of this type are “reductionist” (or, are “reductions”) and reductionism is then the thesis that such explanations will always be forthcoming or at least are possible in principle. Reductionism is most plausible if the entities of the reduced domain can be interpreted as arising from (e.g., as aggregates of) entities of the reduced domain. This ontological claim is controversial but motivates many reductionist theses and associated scientific research programs. Thus, epistemological and ontological claims about reductionism have the methodological implication that they should govern and guide scientific research. When such research proves to be fruitless over a period of time, the associated reductionist claims themselves become suspect. Although issues connected with reductionism arise in the physical and social sciences, most attention to reductionism in philosophy of science over the last few decades has focused on the biological sciences, especially after the advent of molecular biology made it plausible to believe that biological phenomena can be uniformly explained (in detail) from their physical basis. However, the program of finding such explanations has a long philosophical history often couched in terms of seeking “mechanical,” “mechanistic,” or “materialistic” explanations. The contrast here is with traditional vitalism and various forms of teleology and holism.

Historical Background

The possibility of reductionism goes back at least to the mechanical philosophy of the 17th century. Some proponents explicitly claimed that all physical properties of bodies would be explained by contact interactions between their constituent parts. This theme, and how it played out in the history of science, was analyzed in detail by Stein 1958. Mechanical explanations were called “structural” by McMullin 1978 and interpreted as paradigmatically reductionist by Sarkar 1989. In the 17th century, William Harvey’s work (Harvey 1981) on wholes and parts, and especially on the heart as a pump and the mechanical circulation of blood, was most important though Harvey also exhibits significant influences from Aristotle (see Distelzweig 2016). René Descartes disputed Harvey’s claims from the perspective of his “mechanical philosophy” (Des Chene 2001). In the context of 19th-century German biology, Lenoir 1982 characterizes various combinations of mechanism and holism exhibited by researchers. Brigandt and Love 2017 traces implicit discussions of reductionism back to Aristotle.

  • Brigandt, Ingo, and Alan C. Love. “Reductionism in Biology.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2017.

    An encyclopedia entry that contains a brief discussion (Section 2) of reductionism in the history of philosophy, including Aristotle and the Scholastics, the Cartesians and other mechanists, and the teleomechanists of the 19th century before turning to 20th-century and later philosophy of science.

  • Des Chene, Dennis. Spirits and Clocks: Machine and Organism in Descartes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

    Incisive and comprehensive analysis of how Descartes applied his mechanical philosophy to biological questions with variable success.

  • Distelzweig, Peter M. “‘Mechanics’ and Mechanism in William Harvey’s Anatomy: Varieties and Limits.” In Early Modern Medicine and Natural Philosophy. Edited by Peter Distelzweig, Benjamin Goldberg, and Evan R. Ragland, 117–140. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2016.

    Useful analysis of the complex nuances in Harvey’s thinking about mechanism and teleology in life science inquiry.

  • Harvey, William. Disputations Touching on the Generation of Animals. Translated by Gwenneth Whitteridge. Oxford: Blackwell, 1981.

    The most complete account of Harvey’s views on the relations between parts and wholes in organisms. Useful in comparison to his better-known works on the circulation of blood. Originally published in 1651.

  • Lenoir, Timothy. The Strategy of Life: Teleology and Mechanics in Nineteenth Century German Biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

    Seminal study of how 19th-century German biologists mixed and matched themes from mechanistic or materialistic styles of explanations and various forms of teleology and holism.

  • McMullin, Ernan. “Structural Explanation.” American Philosophical Quarterly 15 (1978): 139–147.

    Characterizes mechanical explanation as structural in nature and contrasts it to nomothetic and genetic explanations. It shows exactly what was special about the mechanical philosophy.

  • Sarkar, Sahotra. “Reductionism and Molecular Biology: A Reappraisal.” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1989.

    Reductionism in contemporary molecular biology is viewed as the logical development of the mechanical philosophy of the 17th century. Also contains the most detailed history of reductionism in 20th-century philosophy of science so far available.

  • Stein, Howard. “Some Philosophical Aspects of Natural Science.” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1958.

    An extensive assessment of the rise and fall of the mechanical philosophy. Though most of the discussion focuses on developments in physics, Stein notes how the biology of the 1940s and 1960s marks one culmination of the program of the mechanical philosophy.

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