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Fabris Flavia | Fellow Postdoctoral
2019-01-15 - 2022-09-30 | Research area: Philosophy of Biology
Rethinking Cybernetics in Contemporary Theoretical Biology

In recent years, the contributions of cybernetics to the development of evolutionary developmental (evodevo) biology have increasingly been recognized. The particular theories and models developed during the flourishing of cybernetics in the early 20th century laid the foundation for the systems approach, which is nowadays widely and fruitfully employed in molecular biology, genetics, genomics, immunology, developmental biology, and ecology. Nevertheless, in some quarters, scholars argue that cybernetics should be treated with suspicion because many evolutionary phenomena cannot be explained reductively in terms of mechanisms, their parts, and their production (Dupré 1993; Nicholson 2013; 2014). This debate, almost a decade long, has produced a considerable amount of literature, mostly centred on the long-protracted dispute between mechanistic philosophers of biology on one side, and those who argue for the superiority of a process view of life on the other. My project aims to re-examine the philosophy and epistemology of cybernetics, its history and its implications for contemporary theoretical biology. The philosophical analysis will focus on clarifying the epistemologies of both cybernetics and evo-devo biology, and determining how and to what extent they overlap. I aim to provide positive arguments for the conclusion that, in contrast to the predominant view, cybernetic explanations within biology, when properly understood, are a form of non-reductionist explanation. My work will also help to evaluate the general assumption that cybernetics has, at its ground, a metaphysical commitment to the mechanistic nature of life. I will put this assumption in question, and therefore suggest that the suspicion mentioned above is misplaced.