In Search of Mechanisms: Discoveries across the Life Sciences

In Search of Mechanisms: Discoveries across the Life Sciences

Carl F. Craver, Lindley Darden

Language: English

Pages: 256

ISBN: 022603979X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Neuroscientists investigate the mechanisms of spatial memory. Molecular biologists study the mechanisms of protein synthesis and the myriad mechanisms of gene regulation. Ecologists study nutrient cycling mechanisms and their devastating imbalances in estuaries such as the Chesapeake Bay. In fact, much of biology and its history involves biologists constructing, evaluating, and revising their understanding of mechanisms.
With In Search of Mechanisms, Carl F. Craver and Lindley Darden offer both a descriptive and an instructional account of how biologists discover mechanisms. Drawing on examples from across the life sciences and through the centuries, Craver and Darden compile an impressive toolbox of strategies that biologists have used and will use again to reveal the mechanisms that produce, underlie, or maintain the phenomena characteristic of living things. They discuss the questions that figure in the search for mechanisms, characterizing the experimental, observational, and conceptual considerations used to answer them, all the while providing examples from the history of biology to highlight the kinds of evidence and reasoning strategies employed to assess mechanisms. At a deeper level, Craver and Darden pose a systematic view of what biology is, of how biology makes progress, of how biological discoveries are and might be made, and of why knowledge of biological mechanisms is important for the future of the human species.

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by magnesium ions, and which initiate a biochemical cascade that requires protein synthesis in order, ultimately, to restructure the synapses in ways that change the magnitude of its response to the same concentrations of glutamate. Researchers trust this schema in part because it so nicely makes sense of the variety of inhibitory conditions on the mechanism. If one understands the mechanism of spatial memory completely, one should be able to say why spatial memory fails when it fails. A schema

search for mechanisms. It is often far from obvious at the beginning of a discovery episode where in the system under study the phenomenon takes place. In some cases it is unclear whether the phenomenon even takes place in the system under study at all, or whether, in contrast, it takes place in the interactions between the system and its environment (or perhaps entirely in the environment). The phenomenon of inheritance came to be localized to hereditary materials inside germ cells. Inheritance

suggestion about DNA replication. Watson and Crick close their classic 1953 paper on the double helix structure of DNA as follows: “It has not escaped our attention that the specific [base] pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material” (Watson and Crick 1953, p. 737). DNA has polar bases that hold the two helices together with their complementary hydrogen bonds. These entities could obviously play a role in the first stage of a copying

should have consequences for the mechanism’s behavior. If the part does not make a difference to (is not relevant to) the phenomenon in question, then inhibition of the component should be of no consequence. (Such experiments might be foiled by redundant parts or by compensatory responses in the system in question, two possibilities that always must be kept in mind when dealing with biological systems. Such experiments might also be foiled if one intervenes on a generic background condition for

Nonetheless, it seems to us a useful enterprise to begin sketching out the kinds of problem-solution pairs that have proved especially useful to scientists in key discovery episodes. As just one example consider an episode in the discovery of the mechanism of protein synthesis. In this case we are focusing on a schema for which anomalies arose for the part of the schema in which the ribosome acts as a template for the ordering of amino acids in a protein. This single example illustrates many of

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