Publication 770

Mazzocchi F. (2012) Complexity and the reductionism-holism debate in systems biology. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Systems Biology and Medicine 4(5): 413–427.
Reductionism has largely influenced the development of science, culminating in its application to molecular biology. An increasing number of novel research findings have, however, shattered this view, showing how the molecular-reductionist approach cannot entirely handle the complexity of biological systems. Within this framework, the advent of systems biology as a new and more integrative field of research is described, along with the form which has taken on the debate of reductionism versus holism. Such an issue occupies a central position in systems biology; nonetheless it is not always clearly delineated. This partly occurs because different dimensions (ontological, epistemological, methodological) are involved, and yet the concerned ones often remain unspecified. Besides, within systems biology different streams can be distinguished depending on the degree of commitment to embrace genuine systemic principles. Some useful insights into the future development of this discipline might be gained from the tradition of complexity and self-organization. This is especially true with regard to the idea of self-reference, which incorporated into the organizational scheme is able to generate autonomy as an emergent property of the biological whole. Relevance: It is asserted that systems biology has developed basically within the boundaries of first-order cybernetics. To better integrate the idea of complexity into the development of its framework, insights from the tradition of second-order cybernetics and self-organization need to be taken into consideration more fully. It advances the notion of self-reference as being especially significant.
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