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Books, Journals, New Media
December 25, 2002

Life Science: Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development With Models, Metaphors, and Machines

Author Affiliations

Harriet S.MeyerMD, Contributing EditorDavid H.MorseMS, Journal Review EditorRobertHoganMD, adviser for new media


Not Available

JAMA. 2002;288(24):3170. doi:10.1001/jama.288.24.3170-JBK1225-2-1

Meeting in Grenoble in 1904, the Académie des Sciences heard Stéphane Leduc explain that the appearance and behavior of the spindle apparatus in mitosis could be simulated with a solution of potassium nitrate and a drop of india ink. With this now largely forgotten episode, Evelyn Fox Keller begins a highly readable meditation on the nature of explanation in the biological sciences.

At least some of Leduc's contemporaries thought that his experiments had genuine explanatory value: they made clear something about the nature of life that had previously been mysterious. The gap between their evaluation and our own exemplifies Keller's general thesis that what makes a biological explanation satisfying is essentially local. Mainstream theories of explanation in the philosophy of science aim at a general account of what makes a good scientific explanation—how good explanations isolate the actual causal connections from a sea of predictive, statistical relationships or how they unify diverse phenomena under a few simple patterns. But Keller focuses on how particular scientific explanations meet the needs of the scientific communities that produce them. An explanation that is profoundly satisfying in one research community, she suggests, may seem barely cogent in another.