Between holism and reductionism: a philosophical primer on emergence

Footnotes to Plato

A few years ago I was asked by the editor of the Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society to write a short paper introducing biologists to the philosophical literature on emergence, given recurrent, and sometimes confused, talk of “emergence” in biology. The result was “Between holism and reductionism,” published in 2014, the full version of which you can download here.

‘Emergence’ is a controversial concept with a convoluted history, in both science and philosophy. It is therefore not surprising that it has been misused and vilified, as well as more often than not misunderstood. Typically, the idea of emergence is brought up by researchers who are — for one reason or another — unhappy with an ultra-reductionist scientific program, preferring instead some kind of holism or interactionism in the way they approach their research questions (think of the always current debates on gene–environment interactions). Just as surely, biologists who…

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