Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

TitleInferential explanations in biology
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsGervais, R, Weber, E
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

Among philosophers of science, there is now a widespread agreement that the DN model of explanation is poorly equipped to account for explanations in biology. Rather than identifying laws, so the consensus goes, researchers explain biological capacities by constructing a model of the underlying mechanism. We think that the dichotomy between DN explanations and mechanistic explanations is misleading. In this article, we argue that there are cases in which biological capacities are explained without construct- ing a model of the underlying mechanism. Although these explanations do not conform to Hempel’s DN model (they do not deduce the explanandum from laws of nature), they do invoke more or less stable generalisations. Because they invoke generalisations and have the form of an argument, we call them inferential explanations. We support this claim by considering two examples of explanations of biological capacities: pigeon navigation and photoperiodism. Next, we will argue that these non-mechanistic expla- nations are crucial to biology in three ways: (i) sometimes, they are the only thing we have (there is no alternative available), (ii) they are heuristically useful, and (iii) they provide genuine understanding and so are interesting in their own right. In the last sections we discuss the relation between types of explanations and types of experiments and situate our views within some relevant debates on explanatory power and explanatory virtues.

Citation Key4118013