Heuristic Strategies in Systems Biology
Systems biology is sometimes presented as providing a superior approach to the problem of biological complexity. Its use of ‘unbiased’ methods and formal quantitative tools might lead to the impression that the human factor is effectively eliminated. However, a closer look reveals that this impression is misguided. Systems biologists cannot simply assemble molecular information and compute biological behavior. Instead, systems biology’s main contribution is to accelerate the discovery of mechanisms by applying models as heuristic tools. These models rely on a variety of idealizing and simplifying assumptions in order to be efficient for this purpose. The strategies of systems biologists are similar to those of experimentalists in that they attempt to reduce the complexity of the discovery process. Analyzing and comparing these strategies, or ‘heuristics’, reveals the importance of the human factor in computational approaches and helps to situate systems biology within the epistemic landscape of the life sciences.
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