Research Strategies and Value Outlooks in Scientific Practices: For an Organicist Thinking and a Pluralist Methodology in the Biological Sciences

27 October 2021

Research Strategies and Value Outlooks in Scientific Practices: For an Organicist Thinking and a Pluralist Methodology in the Biological Sciences

Prométhée, Martigues, 1982. Image Credit: Ernest Pignon-Ernest

Modern science historically developed with the aim to control nature to further human progress.  To this end, decontextualization is a central process. However, this aim is not the only value outlook that can be assumed in scientific work, and alternative paths are possible, where different value outlooks are put forward. For example, organicism is a theoretical perspective in biology where living beings are considered as systems with substantial context-sensitivity, requiring a pluralist methodological perspective, combining decontextualized and context-sensitive research strategies, which is more amenable to value outlooks committed to sustainability, social justice, democratic participation, and the common good.


Science as an inherently social and plural endeavor

Science cannot be reduced to merely a body of theories, since theories are produced and tested in the course of scientific practices. This means that science should be specifically treated as crucially involving a set of practices, which show intrinsic social dimension. As a social activity, science cannot be reduced either to individual members of scientific communities. (1) Individual scientists do not investigate based solely on their own methods, theories, and observations, nor under the light of some ahistorical and universal method, theory, or observation. On the contrary, scientific work is inevitably done through community-based practices.

Individuals become scientists after receiving training – and consequently enculturation – in some scientific community. Their investigations are shaped and evaluated by the community in which they are inserted. This community adopts norms and values ​​that guide the production of knowledge. Moreover, the norms and values ​​of a scientific community are not universally valid. They vary over time and across scientific communities, sometimes even within scientific communities, when there is internal pluralism. That is the reason why any definition aiming to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for an activity to be scientific or a science is unable to capture the diversity of scientific practice.

Accordingly, an adequate characterization of science requires the recognition of its plurality. Against the idea of ​​‘Science’ as something unified by a method or a language, as the logical empiricists idealized, science is a set of practices and theories that only partially overlap. Science is not a single body, but a more or less overlapping patchwork. (2) A useful notion to express this idea is that of ‘family resemblance’, proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein. (3)

An adequate model of scientific work requires, therefore, understanding it as involving more than a body of theories and individual practices. It requires understanding the functioning of scientific communities. However, if we are concerned with a situated characterization of science – that is, a characterization empirically informed by sociology and history –, it is not enough to understand scientific practices as inquiry activities guided by the peculiarities of scientific communities. Scientific institutions and organizations (4) respond not only to the interests of scientific communities, but also to the interests of broader social spheres on which they depend for their own functioning, infrastructure, maintenance, and funding.

Research strategies and the objectives of science

Contemporary science is an inquiry activity that takes place based on social institutions and within social organizations. As such, it involves a set of sociohistorically-embedded practices that represents a stage in the tradition of modern science, rooted in a system of values ​​and ideals. (5)

After the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, natural philosophy and eventually scientific research, as it developed in the subsequent centuries, came to be conceived as a kind of investigation that typically abstracts its research objects away from human, social, and environmental contexts. The main figures in the emergence of modern science, such as René Descartes (1596-1650) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), understood scientific investigation as the search for general laws expressed quantitatively and this entailed, with the development of a new mathematical approach to nature alongside with natural philosophy, that understanding had to deal with generic rather than specific, context-dependent objects. (6) This way of understanding science was justified on metaphysical grounds. For those thinkers, the natural world was governed by deterministic laws and was written (by God) in mathematical language. This ideal can be expressed as a metaphysical objective:

Metaphysical objective. Science must discover the laws of nature, and these laws are written in mathematical language.

Another figure of great importance in the origins of modern science was Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon articulated strong arguments in defence of an experimental science in opposition to the practices and teachings considered superior by the literati of his time. These practices and teachings were fundamentally based on expositions and re-articulations of the Aristotelian knowledge system, interpreted under the light of Christianity. For Bacon, this new science would have two central and related objectives:

Epistemic objective. Science must produce experimental knowledge to be reliable.

Practical objective. Science must lead to the control (‘domination’) of nature to promote human progress.

Contemporary science is certainly more plural than the proposal of the founders of modern science, but it is still strongly rooted in the same system of values ​​and ideals. Physics, chemistry and some areas of biology (e.g., molecular biology) tend to be seen as the best models of science. This can be explained, in large part, by the greater resemblance that these sciences bear to the characteristics widely valued by the founders of modern science and still strongly disseminated through science education: search for general laws, extensive use of mathematical language and experimentation (rooted on the mathematical approach that coevolved with modern science and is grounded on generic objects), and the possibility of enormously increasing the control of nature.

Context-sensitive research strategies are, accordingly, necessary to account for biological phenomena, and, while this denies the sufficiency of decontextualizing strategies for this goal, it does not refuse its necessity.

However, these features, albeit often found in scientific practices, are not necessary conditions for an inquiry activity to be scientific. For example, there are several ways to obtain reliable empirical knowledge that do not involve experimentation, conceived as the controlled manipulation of phenomena. Furthermore, non-experimental empirical investigations are often highly relevant to informing certain actions, especially actions that are shaped by ethical and social values ​​that do not reduce to the value attributed to the exercise of control. These forms of action start from the recognition of the integrity of the “other” – a person, a culture, a territory, a living being, an ecosystem – and therefore do not seek to maximize the possibilities of control. For this reason, empirical investigations that overvalue control (in relation to other important values) tend to favor certain possibilities of action over others. Control is a social value and the search for maximizing it tends to generate conflict with other social values, such as, say, democratic participation, sustainability, or social justice. (7)

It is interesting, then, to consider sets of questions that contrast with the Cartesian and Baconian objectives mentioned above, but can nonetheless be taken as legitimate goals of scientific inquiry, for instance, questions that demand, for their empirical formulation and investigation, strategies shaped by ethical and social values ​​and that are not subordinate to the value of control over nature. Furthermore, these are questions that require ‘research strategies’ (8) including contextual dimensions and non-experimental understanding. As an illustration, these are two questions showing this nature:

I. How to understand the social roots of poverty? What knowledge is essential to inform actions to fight poverty? How to understand poverty in a specific context, for instance, in Brazilian urban centers? What kind of investigation could inform projects to fight poverty in the context of such centers?

II. How to understand current socio-environmental problems and conflicts? What research is relevant to informing this issue? And what research is relevant for identifying potential alternatives? What role do investigations play that may systematize, dialogue and build links with other cultures and knowledge systems? How can heterogeneous stakeholders in relation to such problems and conflicts interact and learn from each other?

These examples show that science conducted under strategies that decontextualize phenomena from the contexts in which they are inserted, albeit invaluable to build certain kinds of understanding, for instance, of general laws or lawful regularities underlying several to many instances of phenomena, may be very limited in relation to other legitimate research goals, which demand context-sensitive knowledge. Moreover, they also suggest that the sheer dominance of decontextualizing research strategies in scientific inquiry may generate profound social consequences. Abstraction is a powerful and necessary tool, but contextualization is also essential. Investigations that search to characterize phenomena according to their underlying causal order do not replace context-sensitive inquiries – that is, investigations that seek characteristics of phenomena intrinsically linked to contexts, human, cultural, social, environmental, and others. A methodological pluralism combining decontextualizing and context-sensitive strategies, as proposed by Lacey (9), can offer an avenue for dealing with both the prospects and limitations of such research approaches.

An organism-centered biological understanding remained as a sort of counterculture and became increasingly important in the last four decades, as a growing dissatisfaction with gene-centric, reductionist and adaptationist views led to a “return” of the organism.

An example of the limitations of decontextualizing strategies when it comes to understand phenomena inextricably linked to the contexts in which they take place, as well as of the social consequences of the domination of research by decontextualizing strategies, can be found in the domain of agriculture. Agriculture has been in the forefront of a contemporary development regime built on the promise of “making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas”, as stated by the U.S. President Truman in his 1949 inaugural address and as materialized in the Green Revolution that promised to put poverty and hunger to an end through modern agricultural sciences and technologies. (10) However, the agricultural model resulting from the Green Revolution, dependent on large amounts of chemical inputs (fertilizers, insecticides and so forth), led to several widespread problems, such as environmental contamination, devastation of native environments, soil erosion, desertification, biodiversity loss. On the social sphere, in turn, agricultural modernization has been instrumental in the creation of an agrobusiness that destructed local agricultural practices and knowledge, dismantled the structure of local communities, contributed to the decrease of rural populations and migration patterns leading to the explosion of urban centers around the world (especially in ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘developing’ countries), as well as to a global inequality between consumers and producers of food commodities. (11) Often, this development regime also entailed the denial of Indigenous and Peasant expertises and the ensuing devaluation and sometimes destruction of knowledge systems other than the academic sciences. (12)

If we now consider the research strategies used to inquire into agricultural practices, we will be able to see that decontextualizing and context-sensitive strategies are focused on different targets or questions. Consider, for instance, transgenic crops. (13) They are technoscientific objects resulting from decontextualizing strategies aiming at producing efficient crops with maximum independence from context-related features that may reduce their productivity. The more productive a transgenic crop is no matter in which context it is planted, the better it is as a technoscientific product. (14) This means that questions of efficiency will be often prioritized in the investigation and production of such technoscientific objects, bringing to the fore the issue of how efficiently they will perform in the largest possible variety of contexts in which they may be applied in the real world. Decontextualizing strategies are well-suited for such an inquiry, and it is clear that the ensuing product fits into the value of control. The metaphysical objective of discovering laws or lawful regularities, the epistemic objective of producing reliable experimental knowledge, and the practical objective of dominating and controlling nature for some intended human progress converge onto the investigation of transgenic crops focused on their efficiency.

Prométhée, Martigues, 1982. Image Credit: Ernest Pignon-Ernest

But is that all we need to know about transgenic crops? Or is there some fundamental knowledge that is left out of the picture by the dominance of decontextualizing strategies? Consider, for instance, that such dominance may lead to an imbalance between questions concerning the efficiency and the legitimacy of transgenic crops. (15) If we are interested in knowing whether it is legitimate to develop an agricultural model based on the large use of transgenic crops, rather than how efficient are such crops, we will need to consider other kinds of questions, for which decontextualizing strategies are not well-suited. For instance, to deliberate on legitimacy we need to deal with ethical issues, with the adverse effects and potential risks of an extensive use of transgenic crops (say, to the environment or to human health), and, also, with putative alternatives to that agricultural model that might lead to comparable or distinctive ends (for instance, in relation to other values than control over nature or gains in capital or market, such as sustainability, socioecological resilience or social justice). These kinds of knowledge are also necessary, besides efficiency, productivity and so forth, for a society to decide which agricultural model to prefer or prioritize. However, they cannot be produced in a reliable manner without considering the contexts in which ethical judgments are made, risks and adverse effects may take place, and how alternative agricultural models relate to situated issues such as local agricultural practices and knowledge, or the structure of rural communities. These kinds of knowledge require context-sensitive strategies, making it clear that a monistic methodology prioritizing decontextualizing strategies has both epistemic and social costs.

In contrast with decontextualizing studies focused on the efficiency of agricultural technologies or technoscientific objects, closely related to the development of the Green Revolution and the associated ‘agrobusiness’ model, context-sensitive strategies are the main approach in alternative research efforts to inquire into agriculture, such as those in fields such as agroecology (16) or ecologically intensified agriculture. (17) In such efforts, agroecosystems tend to be considered in relation to several dimensions at the same time: productivity, sustainability (for instance, in terms of ecological integrity and biodiversity conservation), health conditions prevailing in local communities, empowering of local peasants’ agency, etc. This entails taking into account other values than control over nature or market and capital gains.

For instance, the prevalence of a value outlook combining technological progress, capital and the market entails that the exercise of control over natural objects becomes a social value that is not systematically subordinated to other social values, including some that are fundamental to our own survival, such as sustainability, and others that matter for our social lives, such as social justice and common welfare.

When we recognize the importance of context-sensitive knowledge and values such as sustainability or social justice, the need of a more comprehensive and plural characterization of scientific practices becomes clear. This requires, in turn, a reflection on how to rethink the metaphysical, epistemic, and practical objectives of scientific inquiry. We outline below a possible way of rethinking them:

Metaphysical objective. Science must discover the laws or lawful regularities that determine phenomena, but also the boundary conditions that specify in different contexts the dynamics and behavior of phenomena in a situated, local, contingent manner. This is especially true in the case of biological, social and other higher-level phenomena (by contrast with the physical and chemical levels), dependent as they are on historicity and contextuality, which entail an irreducible role to variability in their understanding. (18)

Phenomena showing such a specific nature demand a different mathematical and scientific approach than that developed along the history of modern science to deal with generic objects that can be investigated through decontextualized strategies (exclusively or mainly). (19) After all, without a mathematical approach that can deal with specific objects, dependent on situated dynamics, and a scientific approach that impart to context-sensitive strategies the same priority typically given to decontextualized strategies, it will be impossible to properly understand the dynamics and behavior of such phenomena. This entails that the epistemic objective of scientific inquiry should be rethought in order to be compatible with such a metaphysical objective:

Epistemic objective. Science must build empirically well-supported theories and models that show reliability, no matter the degree of (in)dependence of the dynamics and behavior of a given system and the phenomena associated with it in relation to the specific context in which the system is working. This means that context-sensitive knowledge (about specific objects) needs to be more and more produced and considered alongside with decontextualized knowledge (of generic objects) as systems and phenomena increasingly depend on specific historical, contextual, and variable dynamics.

This means that when we are dealing with, say, biological and social systems and phenomena, such as those related to practices like agriculture, we cannot do without context-sensitive research strategies and knowledge. There are, for sure, consequences to the practical objective of scientific inquiries:

Practical objective. Science must be relevant to practices shaped by different perspectives of value, not only or primarily to the values of control, progress, or capital and market gains. In view of the current situation of human societies, values of sustainability, social justice, democratic participation, and the common good are especially important and deserve a great deal of attention by the scientific communities. (20) Context-sensitive knowledge will be fundamental to practices shaped by these latter values.

As we mentioned, scientific research is conducted based on specific social institutions and within particular social organizations, such as universities, research centers, and research & development (R & D) facilities in industrial and other corporations. As science is immersed in societies with great inequality of wealth and power, scientific organizations tend to incorporate the value outlooks of dominant groups. In contemporary societies, the dominant value perspective is that of technological progress value (21), closely related to the post-war development regime mentioned above, which includes the Green Revolution as one of its elements. Whenever private interests prevail over collective, shared interests, as it is often the case in capitalist societies (but not only in them), the value outlook of technological progress tends to be interpreted in terms of the values of capital and the market. The confluence of the values of technological progress, capital and the market conflicts with a set of values that Lacey (22) conceives as “viable values”, among which we find the values of sustainability (of socioecological systems), democratic participation and social justice, and the common good. In these terms, a commodification of science undermines the social responsibility of scientific practices and, as the value outlook combining technological progress, capital and the market gets entangled with scientific policy and funding, also contributes to a decrease in the diversity of alternative ways of doing science (23), or, to put it differently, the internal plurality of science (24). In particular, among the different ways of doing science, those aligned with private interests and goods tend to be prioritized by scientists themselves in relation to those associated with public interests and the common good, as their funding opportunities and the way they are evaluated become inclined towards the former.

Nevertheless, these trends, which have importantly changed scientific goals and practices along the history of science, are characterized by social and ethical dimensions that deserve due attention. For instance, the prevalence of a value outlook combining technological progress, capital and the market entails that the exercise of control over natural objects becomes a social value that is not systematically subordinated to other social values, including some that are fundamental to our own survival, such as sustainability, and others that matter for our social lives, such as social justice and common welfare. In addition, that value outlook places a high value on innovations that increase our ability to exercise control over natural objects and on defining problems in terms that allow technoscientific solutions, while less value is attributed to other issues such as the risks, legitimacy, social distribution of these solutions. Other implications of this outlook concern the understanding of social relations based on the interests of capital, the assignment of a centrality to the market as a key element in handling social problems, and the endorsement of an individualistic ethical positioning.

After the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, natural philosophy and eventually scientific research, as it developed in the subsequent centuries, came to be conceived as a kind of investigation that typically abstracts its research objects away from human, social, and environmental contexts.

Understanding science as a socio-historically situated practice embedded into the world of values ​​and human experience and, in particular, how it developed under the influence of the value outlook of technological progress, capital and the market allows us to explain some outstanding characteristics of an important parcel of the scientific activity. For example, why has scientific work been so often devoted to investigations that neglect the human, social and environmental dimensions of phenomena? Why has science favoured actions that overvalue the exercise of control over nature and strived for producing technoscientific solutions, even in the face of socioenvironmental problems that were in part caused by the exercise of technoscientifically-mediated control over natural systems and processes? We think that to answer such questions, we need to take into account the role that certain value outlooks play in shaping social institutions and organizations that are central to the structuring of the practices of science. The value outlook of technological progress, capital and the market has increasingly shaped scientific institutions and organizations along their history. Scientific work, in particular in the so-called exact and natural sciences, have often prioritized the development of intervention and control over nature, typically in response to private rather than public interest. The prioritization of such goals is both an effect and a cause of private interest in scientific research (25), which became the major source of funding for science. Between 2005 and 2015, private corporations were responsible for most of the research and development (R & D) in most countries, answering for more than 60% of the R & D expenditure among the OECD member countries. (26) Accordingly, scientific practices mostly committed to decontextualizing strategies increasingly received priority in funding and research the more this value outlook prevailed, due to the aim of deepening the possibility of controlling natural objects. These strategies are central in the production of technoscientific objects, as they are supposed to move among contexts in which they are expected to remain functional, despite the inevitable dependence of their operation on the contexts of use. This will be more likely the more we identify lawful regularities that tend to operate in the same context-independent manner (i.e., that operate generically across contexts and variations).

There are, however, many individuals, cultures, communities, social movements, and, also, scientific researchers and communities who adopt other value outlooks, for instance, committed to social justice, participatory democracy, respect for nature, among others. For them, other forms of scientific inquiry are of crucial relevance, such that science can inform actions shaped by those outlooks, which demand context-sensitive investigations. (27) A purposeful agenda for enriching the understanding and practices of science with approaches committed to methodological pluralism and to value outlooks as the ones mentioned above can be proposed in educational research and innovation, aiming at developing teaching initiatives for educating citizens in general, science teachers and scientific researchers in this direction. In the last section of this paper, we will briefly argue that organicist thinking on biological systems can contribute to such an agenda.

Les expulsés (the expelled), Paris 1979; Image Credit: Ernest Pignon-Ernest

Organicist thinking, research strategies and value outlooks

At first sight, the claim that biological sciences deal with organisms seems to be a truism. Due to the nature of the phenomena these sciences intend to understand and explain, they would have to be born and maintained “organism-centered”. But their history shows a more complex picture. Along the 20th century, a gap emerged between the idea of an organism and the idea of the mechanisms operating on them that enable vital phenomena. This gap resulted from the predominance of decontextualizing strategies in biological research, as discussed above. The influences of a molecular perspective on living systems, arising from advances in genetics, biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, and of the evolutionary synthesis have been major contributions to drive the organism away from a central position in biological investigations. (28) On the one hand, there have been a transition from the idea that we also need molecular explanations to account for living systems to the idea of a sufficiency of such explanations to understand an increasing diversity of biological phenomena. On the other, the prevailing theoretical framework to conceive of evolution relegated the organism to a secondary role, as a sort of medium where variations meet selective regimes, while both factors would be not under any relevant influence by the organism itself. The upshot was a relatively low priority given to the organism as a research target for a long period during the second half of the 20th century, giving the impression that it has been explained away when conceived in evolutionary, genetic, and molecular terms. (29)

Nevertheless, biology did not turn away from the organism entirely along the 20th century. An organism-centered biological understanding remained as a sort of counterculture and became increasingly important in the last four decades, as a growing dissatisfaction with gene-centric, reductionist and adaptationist views led to a “return” of the organism. (30) An organicist perspective (exemplified by the writings of Joseph Needham, Paul Weiss, Conrad H. Waddington, Joseph Woodger, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, among others) has been a historical compromise that provided a “resolution” of the debate between vitalism and mechanism, working along the 20th century more or less tacitly as a background philosophy of biology, despite the predominance of reductionist, decontextualized approaches in the biological sciences themselves. (31) The recent return of the organism can be seen, then, as a renewed marriage between at least part of the theoretical and empirical research in biology and an important parcel of the work done in philosophy of biology.

Poissons, ecrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires, que l'on trouve autour des isles Moluques et sur les côtes des terres Australes, Louis Renard, Arnout Vosmaer, Balthasar Coyette, and Adrien van der Stel, 1754. Image Credit:

Organicists regard the complexity and singularity (32) of the organism as signs of its irreducibility to physicochemical processes, and, consequently, of the autonomy of biology in relation to chemistry and physics. From a naturalist perspective, this autonomy cannot mean, however, an independence from physicochemical processes and lawful regularities, as living systems evolved from physicochemical systems and are composed by them. It just means that, ontologically speaking, living systems show a distinctive emergent nature that entails, in epistemological terms, that biological theories cannot be reduced to chemical and physical theories. A key issue, then, is to properly characterize what is exactly distinctive about the nature of living systems – and yet compatible with a naturalist outlook – and, accordingly, what is exactly the nature of biology as an autonomous science.

Among the diversity of manners in which these issues have been addressed in theoretical and philosophical research in biology, we will focus here on an organicist framework developed from a conception of biological systems as autonomous agents (33), being biological autonomy understood as emerging from a set of interlocked features: organizational closure of constraints (34), adaptive agency (35), capacity of proliferating and generating functional innovation (36), and of undergoing open-ended evolution. (37) This organizational framework provides a scientifically legitimate and philosophically consistent characterization of the intrinsic teleology of living systems (38), which grounds, in turn, distinctively biological features, such as the functionality of those systems. (39) We will argue here that this framework also supports the epistemological and methodological claim that a pluralistic research strategy, combining decontextualized and context-sensitive approaches, is necessary to account for biological phenomena.

In this theoretical framework, autonomy is considered as a constitutive dimension of biological systems, related to their capacity of self-determination. This means that, as autonomous systems, living beings are what they do, in an important sense. (40) The idea of autonomy has been expressed in recent years through the concept of closure, which comes back to Varela (41), but undergone major developments in recent years.(42) This concept grasps the idea that the components and operations of biological systems depend on one another for their own production and maintenance and, at the same time, collectively determine the conditions of existence of those systems. In short, every system showing autonomy is, from this perspective, organizationally closed. If we consider the purposeful educational agenda mentioned above, this means that in biology teaching – from basic school to higher education – the concept of organization should be at the center of the curriculum, as one of the key structuring concepts that articulate other contents in such a manner that one may reach a more integrated and cohesive understanding of living systems, rather than a fragmented view, which seems to be a relatively common outcome of biology learning. (43)

As Moreno and Mossio discuss, biological closure is qualitatively different from physicochemical closure because it involves constraints produced, at least in part, by the living system itself. (44) This entails that living beings operate based on two distinct but interdependent causal regimes: on the one hand, an open regime of thermodynamic processes and reactions; and, on the other, a closed system of mutually dependent components that work as constraints. Constraints are local and contingent causes, exerted by specific structures and processes (e.g., enzymes, vasculature, cell compartments, organs etc.), which decrease the degrees of freedom of the processes on which they act but remain conserved in the relevant temporal scale for describing and explaining their causal action over a system’s dynamics. (45) Constraints have explanatory importance because they provide additional specifications needed to describe context-dependent behaviors within a system or object, which are underdetermined by lawful regularities, precisely because of their dependence on variable and contingent local conditions. To take into account both the closed nature of biological organization and its context-dependence, biological research should always consider – following a key distinction by Piaget (46) – that living systems are at the same time organizationally closed (and, thus, autonomous) and thermodynamically open (and, thus, dependent on the context or environment from which they acquire higher-quality, i.e., less entropic matter and energy and to which they dissipate lower-quality, i.e., more entropic matter and energy).

These examples show that science conducted under strategies that decontextualize phenomena from the contexts in which they are inserted, albeit invaluable to build certain kinds of understanding, for instance, of general laws or lawful regularities underlying several to many instances of phenomena, may be very limited in relation to other legitimate research goals, which demand context-sensitive knowledge.

Organicist thinking can contribute to a pluralist view on scientific methodology in the biological sciences by establishing the need of context-sensitive strategies for developing a comprehensive understanding of living systems. This goes back to a founding source of scientific investigation on biological self-determination (47), namely, Claude Bernard’s ground-breaking work on the physiology of living systems, which can be regarded as one of the pillars of modern biology. (48) Bernard gave a major contribution to the emergence of organicism as a historical compromise between vitalism and mechanism, by providing an approach capable of dealing with what is distinctive about biological organization without appealing to vitalist ideas. (49) This was made possible by Bernard’s distinction between natural laws, common to all occurrences of one or more phenomena, and milieux, which harbor boundary conditions that specify the behavior or dynamics of a phenomenon in a local, contingent circumstance. In different milieux, qualitatively distinct phenomena can be found without contradicting lawful regularities. Accordingly, as in living systems physicochemical processes are subordinate to rather specific milieux, in their complexity, historicity, variability, those systems show distinctive behaviors in relation to physicochemical systems, but to explain this distinctive nature it is not necessary to appeal to any force or energy that is not chemical or physical, or not compatible with physicochemical laws and processes.

The distinction put forward by Bernard is of central importance to understand why biology is autonomous and yet dependent on chemistry and physics, and, also, why context-sensitive strategies are often and in the case of biological and other higher-level systems always needed to explain phenomena. After all, biological phenomena do not depend only on physicochemical lawful regularities but also – and fundamentally – on the milieux in which they take place, characterized by specific sets of constraints that affect the dynamics obeying those laws. Therefore, it is not possible to sufficiently understand biological phenomena without specifying in which contexts they are taking place, subject to which constraints or boundary conditions.

Context-sensitive research strategies are, accordingly, necessary to account for biological phenomena, and, while this denies the sufficiency of decontextualizing strategies for this goal, it does not refuse its necessity. The upshot is that methodological pluralism offers the best approach to understand and, consequently, to relate and act upon biological systems. If we consider, in particular, technoscientific interventions on such systems, this perspective demands that we understand their specific dynamics in the contexts in which they take place, rather than just how they might work in a decontextualized manner (for instance, how efficient they are in a context-independent way). In these terms, we need to consider how they perform, which consequences and risks they bring, how benefits and harms are distributed in a diversity of contexts. From this concern with the context-dependence of biological phenomena, one can advocate, to conclude, for value outlooks concerned with the legitimacy of our interventions in the world and, thus, which subordinate the practical objective of controlling nature to values related to the sustainability of our relations with nature (in socioecological systems), to an attitude of respect towards nature, to a commitment to social justice and the common good. It is not that organicist thinking per se would be enough to account for how these objectives unfold at the social level. This would be merely a different sort of decontextualizing, reductionist view. What we have in mind here is that, by showing that in the biological realm itself one cannot understand phenomena only appealing to decontextualizing strategies, as stressed by organicist views that prompt us to be more concerned with context-dependence and, thus, more committed to a methodological pluralism, if we now go beyond the biological, into the social realm, this concern may make us more prone to consider the context-dependence of phenomena and to be committed to other values, urgently needed for our survival and life quality, and for the resilience of ecological and socioecological systems, than control over nature, technological progress, capital and the market.


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Sumberg, James & Thompson, John (Eds.) (2012). Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World. New York, NY: Routledge.

La Via Campesina (2020). Annual Report 2020. Available at:, Accessed August 30th 2021.

12. Lansing, J. Stephen. (2007). Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sousa Santos, Boaventura de. (2010). Para além do pensamento abissal: Das linhas globais a uma ecologia de saberes. In: Sousa Santos, Boaventura de & Meneses, Maria Paula (Orgs.). Epistemologias do Sul (2ª Ed.) (pp. 23-71). Coimbra: Almedina/CES.

Sousa Santos, Boaventura de. (2018). O Fim do Império Cognitivo: A Afirmação das Epistemologias do Sul. Coimbra: Almedina.

Ludwig, David, El-Hani, Charbel N., Gatti, Fabio, Kendig, Catherine, Kramm, Matthias, Neco, Lucia, Delgado, Abigal Nieves, Renck, Vitor, Ressiore, Adriana, Galindo, Luis Reyes, Rickard, Thomas Lloyd, De La Rosa, Gabriela, Turska, Julia, Vergara-Silva, Francisco & Wilson, Robert A. (2021). Indigenous expertise is not pseudoscience: Why philosophy of science needs to do better. Erkenntnis, under review.

13. Lacey (2005) and Lacey, Hugh. (2015). Food and agricultural systems for the future: science, emancipation and human flourishing. Journal of Critical Realism 14(3): 272-286.

Lacey, Hugh. (2017). The safety of using genetically engineered organisms: Empirical evidence and value judgments. Public Affairs Quarterly 31(4): 261-281.

14. We conceive ‘technoscience’ here as a complex entanglement of science and technology that makes it hard to propose any distinction between the production of scientific knowledge and technologies that does not seem arbitrary (Lacey, 2012; Radder, 2019). Surely, this is not the only way of understanding technoscience. Rather, there is a diversity of understandings and positionings related to it in the literature (see, e.g., Bensaude-Vincent and Loeve, 2018). We are just spelling out how we specifically conceive of it, mostly inspired on the works of Lacey and Radder.

Lacey, Hugh. (2012). Reflections on science and technoscience. Scientiae Studia 10 (Special issue): 103-128.

Radder, Hans. (2019). From Commodification to the Common Good: Reconstructing Science, Technology, and Society. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette B. & Loeve, Sacha. (2018). Toward a philosophy of technosciences. In: Loeve, Sacha; Guchet, Xavier & Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette (Eds.). French Philosophy of Technology: Classical Readings and Contemporary Approaches (pp.169-186). Cham: Springer.

15. Lacey (2005, 2015, 2016, 2017).

16. e.g.: Wezel, A.; Bellon, S.; Doré, T.; Francis, C.; Vallod, D. & David, C. (2009). Agroecology as a science, a movement and a practice. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 29(4): 503-515.

Caporal, Francisco Roberto & Azevedo, Edisio Oliveira de (Orgs.). Princípios e Perspectivas da Agroecologia. Curitiba: Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia do Paraná.

Altieri, Miguel A. (2018). Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture (2a Ed). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Rosset, Peter M.; Barbosa, Lia Pinheiro; Val, Valentín & McCune, Nils. (2020). Pensamiento latinoamericano agroecológico: The emergence of a critical Latin American agroecology? Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 45(1): 42-64.

17. e.g.: Doré, Thierry; Makowski, David; Malézieux, Eric; Munier-Jolain, Nathalie; Tchamitchian, Marc & Tittonell, Pablo. (2011). Facing up to the paradigm of ecological intensification in agronomy: Revisiting methods, concepts and knowledge. European Journal of Agronomy 34(4): 197-210.

Caron, Patrick; Biénabe, Estelle & Hainzelin, Etienne. (2014). Making transition towards ecological intensification of agriculture a reality: The gaps in and the role of scientific knowledge. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 8: 44-52.

Tittonell, Pablo. (2014). Ecological intensification of agriculture — sustainable by nature. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 8: 53-61.

Kleijn, David; Bommarco, Riccardo; Fijen, Thijs P.M.; Garibaldi, Lucas A.; Potts, Simon G. & van der Putten, Wim H. (2019). Ecological intensification: Bridging the gap between science and practice. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 34(2): 154-166.

18. This metaphysical objective promotes an ideal of a broader empirical scope than the metaphysical objective assumed in the birth of modern science, to the extent that it does not deny the scientific status of an inquiry if it does not aim at knowledge of general laws.

19. Montévil et al. (2016).

20. See Lacey (2014b, 2016), Radder (2019). Our understanding of what is a common good is aligned with Radder (2019). According to this author, “a common good should be in the public interest and should not be privatized, independently of whether it can or cannot be privatized for economic reasons” (p. 166). A key underlying hypothesis is that (contrary to neoclassic economics) technological progress evaluated by the market is not sufficient to further common good.

Lacey, Hugh. (2014b). On the co-unfolding of scientific knowledge and viable values. In: Schroeder-Heister, P., Heinzmann, G., Hodges, W. & Bour, P. E. (Eds.). Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science. Proceedings of the Fourteenth International Congress (Nancy) (pp. 269-284). London: College Publications.

21. Lacey, Hugh & Mariconda, Pablo. (2014). O modelo das interações entre os valores e as atividades científicas. Scientiae Studia 12(4): 643-668.

22. Lacey (2014b, 2016).

23. Radder (2019).

24. Sousa Santos (2010, 2018).

25. Krimsky, Sheldon. (2003). Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profit Corrupted Biomedical Research? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

26. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2015). OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2015: Innovation for growth and society. Paris: OECD. Available at:, Accessed August 30th 2021.

27. Lacey (2016).

28. e.g.: Lewontin, Richard. (2000). The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Goodwin, Brian. (2001). How the Leopard Changed its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

29. El-Hani, Charbel N. & Emmeche, Claus. (2000). On some theoretical grounds for an organism-centered biology: Property emergence, supervenience, and downward causation. Theory in Biosciences 119(3-4): 234-275.

30. See, e.g., El-Hani and Emmeche (2000), Goodwin (2001) and

Gilbert, Scott F. & Sarkar, Sahotra. (2000). Embracing complexity: Organicism for the 21st century. Developmental Dynamics 219(1): 1-9.

Bateson, Patrick. (2005). The return of the whole organism. Journal of Biosciences 30(1): 31-39.

Nicholson, Daniel J. (2014). The return of the organism as a fundamental explanatory concept in biology. Philosophical Compass 9(5): 347-359.

Nicholson, Daniel J. (2018). Reconceptualizing the organism: From complex machine to flowing stream. In: Nicholson, Daniel J. & Dupré, John (Eds.). Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology (pp. 139-166). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

31. El-Hani and Emmeche (2000).

32. The singularity of biological systems is a consequence of their historicity, variability and context-dependence, which are inherent features of such systems, as specific objects that show qualitative change along their phylogenetic and ontogenetic histories, differently from the generic objects investigated by chemistry and physics (Longo and Montévil, 2014; Montévil et al., 2016)

Longo, Giuseppe & Montévil, Maël. (2014). Perspectives on Organisms: Biological Time, Symmetries and Singularities. Heidelberg: Springer.

33. e.g., Moreno, Alvaro & Mossio, Matteo. (2015). Biological Autonomy: A Philosophical and Theoretical Enquiry. Dordrecht: Springer.

34. e.g., Montévil, Maël & Mossio, Matteo. (2015). Biological organisation as closure of constraints. Journal of Theoretical Biology 372: 179-191.

35. e.g., Barandiaran, Xabier, Di Paolo, Ezequiel & Rohde, Marieke. (2009). Defining agency. Individuality, normativity, asymmetry and spatio-temporality in action. Adaptive Behavior 17(5): 367-386.

36. e.g., Montévil et al. (2016) and

Soto, Ana M.; Longo, Giuseppe; Montévil, Maël & Sonnenschein, Carlos. (2016). The biological default state of cell proliferation with variation and motility, a fundamental principle for a theory of organisms. Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 122(1): 16-23.

37. e.g., Ruiz-Mirazo, Kepa; Peretó, Juli & Moreno, Alvaro. (2004). A universal definition of life: Autonomy and open-ended evolution. Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere 34(3): 323-346.

38. e.g., Mossio, Matteo & Bich, Leonardo. (2017). What makes biological organisation teleological? Synthese 194(4): 1089-1114.

39. e.g., Mossio, Matteo; Saborido, Cristian & Moreno, Alvaro. (2009). An organizational account of biological functions. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 60(4): 813-841.

40. Moreno and Mossio (2015).

41. Varela, Francisco J. (1979). Principles of Biological Autonomy. New York, NY: Elsevier.

42. e.g., Montévil and Mossio (2015), Moreno and Mossio (2015) and

Mossio, Matteo; Montévil, Maël & Longo, Giuseppe. (2016). Theoretical principles for biology: Organization. Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 122(1): 24-35.

43. e.g.: Minasian‐Batmanian, Laura C.; Lingard, Jennifer & Prosser, Michael. (2005). Differences in students’ perceptions of learning compulsory foundation biochemistry in the health sciences professions. Advances in Health Sciences Education 10(4): 279-290.

Minasian‐Batmanian, Laura C.; Lingard, Jennifer & Prosser, Michael. (2006). Variation in student reflections on their conceptions of and approaches to learning biochemistry in a first‐year health sciences’ service subject. International Journal of Science Education 28(15): 1887-1904.

Pedrancini, Vanessa Daiana; Corazza-Nunes, Maria Júlia; Galuch, Maria Terezinha Bellanda; Moreira, Ana Lúcia Olivo Rosas & Ribeiro, Alessandra Claudia. (2017). Revista Electrónica de Enseñanza de las Ciencias 6(2): 299-309.

Šorgo, Andrej & Šiling, Rebeka. (2017). Fragmented knowledge and missing connections between knowledge from different hierarchical organisational levels of reproduction among adolescents and young adults. Center for Educational Policy Studies Journal 7(1): 69-91.

Carvalho, Ítalo N. de; El-Hani, Charbel N. & Nunes-Neto, Nei F. (2020). How should we select conceptual contents for biology high school curriculum? Science & Education 29(3): 513-547.

44. Moreno and Mossio (2015).

45. Montévil and Mossio (2015), Moreno and Mossio (2015), Mossio and Bich (2017) and Pattee, Howard H. (1972). Laws and constraints, symbols and languages. In: Waddington, Conrad H. (Ed.). Towards a Theoretical Biology (Vol. 4, pp. 248-258). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

46. Piaget, Jean. (1967). Biologie et Connaissance. Paris: Éditions de la Pléiade.

47. Mossio and Bich (2017).

48. Bernard, Claude. (1865). Introduction à l’Étude de la Médecine Expérimentale. Paris: Baillière. Bernard, Claude. (1878). Leçons sur les phénomènes de la Vie Communs aux Animaux et aux Végétaux. Paris: Baillière.

49. Mossio and Bich (2017) and Bechtel, William. (2007). Biological mechanisms: Organized to maintain autonomy. In:Boogerd, Fred C.; Bruggeman, Frank J.; Hofmeyr, Jan-Hendrik S. & Westerhoff, Hans V.(Eds.). Systems Biology: Philosophical Foundations (pp. 269-302). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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