what can systems biology learn from the legacy of Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Paul Weiss?

October 29th, 2011 by hofkirchner


Manfred Drack gets support for a stand-alone project on exactly that question. a 2 days workshop was held as kick-off meeting 27–28 october.

it goes without saying that one focus was on questions of reductionism and holism. i, for my part, was very intrigued with weiss’s dictum that the variance at one level of living systems is much less than the total sum of variances of the components at a lower level. the diagram below gives the formal expression of that at the bottom line. besides it shows an example: in an embryo’s development the location of a single cell, given a certain location at t1, may vary widely at t2, while the shape of the whole organism may not do that (compare the upper part of the picture on the right with the lower part).

from the presentation of Manfred Drack on Paul Weiss’s systems approach (slide 11)

i wonder how agent-based modeling (or cellular automata), for which local rules are given to result in a global pattern, can cope with that. Weiss’s idea is opposite: for him on the higher level there is order and determinacy and on the lower level rather “freedom”.

in that context another issue much debated concerned the concept of cause, in particular, the so-called “downward causation”.

one point of discussion was the concept of mechanism. i insisted on featuring mechanisms not as mechanical (= working strictly deterministically) – in order to avoid falling back in a mechanistic paradigm – but rather as mechanisMic (as Mario Bunge does) and not using the term mechanisTic.

the group of international researchers that were invited comprised: Olaf Wolkenhauer from the University of Rostock and his PhD student Tobias Breidenbacher, Ana Soto and Carlos Sonnenschein from Tufts University, Jan-Hendrik Hofmeyr from the University of Stellenbosch, and Anders Strand from the University of Oslo. from the University of Vienna Gerhard Müller took part.

from the left: me, Strand, Hofmeyr, Soto, Wolkenhauer, Breidenbacher, Müller, Sonnenschein (photo: Manfred Drack)

the project is carried out at the Department of Theoretical Biology (University of Vienna). the Bertalanffy Center is cooperation partner of the project.

(here is my presentation.)

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