Philosophical perspectives on time in biology


Although time is a central topic in philosophy, within the philosophy of science discussions of time in biology have largely been neglected. This dissertation argues for the philosophical importance of paying closer attention to the vastly different timescales at which biological phenomenon can be investigated and explained. The importance of timescales for four themes in philosophy of biology is examined: abstractions and manipulations of time in biological practice, metaphysical debates between the mechanistic and process ontology frameworks, the problem of synchronizing molecular clocks and fossil clocks, and reductionism in biology. This dissertation provides the first sustained philosophical examination of the role of time in biology. The first chapter explores how researchers manage the complexities of multiple timescales by abstracting from time physically, procedurally, mathematically, and conceptually. Understanding how researchers abstract from time in their investigations is important for determining what phenomena might be obscured by such practices. Chapter two turns to the debate in philosophy of biology between traditional mechanistic accounts and the new process ontology. While process ontology is an advance, insofar as it has the potential to bring temporal issues to the fore, it is better understood as an epistemological—not metaphysical—framework. A careful consideration of timescales highlights how different metaphysical frameworks can be more epistemologically appropriate in different contexts. The third chapter examines how molecular and fossil clocks are used to measure time in biology. In both cases, researchers use phenomena occurring at one timescale (e.g. DNA mutations) to measure durations across another scale (e.g., the evolutionary occurrence of a last common ancestor). Attempts to synchronize these clocks for key biological events in the deep past pose interesting methodological problems—and suggest new solutions—for how to deal with discordant and interdependent lines of evidence. The final chapter considers the consequences of this analysis of time in biology for debates about reductionism. Reductionism has focused almost exclusively on spatial scales. This chapter shows how a consideration of temporal scales transforms philosophical debates about reductionism in biology and poses new challenges. This dissertation demonstrates the fertility of extending the philosophy of time into the philosophy of biology

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