A conceptual framework for organismal biology: linking theories, models, and data.


Implicit or subconscious theory is especially common in the biological sciences. Yet, theory plays a variety of roles in scientific inquiry. First and foremost, it determines what does and does not count as a valid or interesting question or line of inquiry. Second, theory determines the background assumptions within which inquiries are pursued. Third, theory provides linkages among disciplines. For these reasons, it is important and useful to develop explicit theories for biology. A general theory of organisms is developed, which includes 10 fundamental principles that apply to all organisms, and 6 that apply to multicellular organisms only. The value of a general theory comes from its utility to help guide the development of more specific theories and models. That process is demonstrated by examining two domains: ecoimmunology and development. For the former, a constitutive theory of ecoimmunology is presented, and used to develop a specific model that explains energetic trade-offs that may result from an immunological response of a host to a pathogen. For the latter, some of the issues involved in trying to devise a constitutive theory that covers all of development are explored, and a more narrow theory of phenotypic novelty is presented. By its very nature, little of a theory of organisms will be new. Rather, the theory presented here is a formal expression of nearly two centuries of conceptual advances and practice in research. Any theory is dynamic and subject to debate and change. Such debate will occur as part of the present, initial formulation, as the ideas presented here are refined. The very process of debating the form of the theory acts to clarify thinking. The overarching goal is to stimulate debate about the role of theory in the study of organisms, and thereby advance our understanding of them.

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