Accessibility navigation

Biological mistakes: what they are and what they mean for the experimental biologist

Oderberg, D. ORCID:, Hill, J., Austin, C., Bojak, I. ORCID:, Cinotti, F. ORCID: and Gibbins, J. ORCID: (2023) Biological mistakes: what they are and what they mean for the experimental biologist. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. ISSN 1464-3537 (In Press)

[img] Text - Accepted Version
· Restricted to Repository staff only
· The Copyright of this document has not been checked yet. This may affect its availability.


It is advisable to refer to the publisher's version if you intend to cite from this work. See Guidance on citing.

To link to this item DOI: 10.1086/724444


Organisms and other biological entities are mistake-prone: they get things wrong. The entities of pure physics, such as atoms and inorganic molecules, do not make mistakes: they do what they do according to physical law, with no room for error except on the part of the physicist or their theory. We set out a novel framework for understanding biology and its demarcation from physics – that of mistake-making. We distinguish biological mistakes from mere failures. We then propose a rigorous definition of mistakes that, although invoking the concept of function, is compatible with various views about what functions are. The definition of mistake-making is agential, since mistakes do not just happen ¬– at least in the sense analysed here – but are made. This requires, then, a notion of biological agency which we set out as a definition of the Minimal Biological Agent. The paper then considers a series of objections to the theory presented here, along with our replies. Two key features of our theory of mistakes are, first, that it is a supplement to, not a replacement for, existing general frameworks within which biology is understood and practised. Secondly, it is designed to be experimentally productive. Hence we end with a series of case studies where mistake theory can be shown to be useful in the potential generation of research questions and novel hypotheses of interest to the working biologist.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Life Sciences > School of Biological Sciences > Biomedical Sciences
Life Sciences > School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences > Department of Psychology
Life Sciences > School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences > Neuroscience
Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > Philosophy
ID Code:109845
Publisher:University of Chicago Press

University Staff: Request a correction | Centaur Editors: Update this record

Page navigation