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Open Access Highly Accessed Correspondence

So what do we really mean when we say that systems biology is holistic?

Derek Gatherer

Author Affiliations

MRC Virology Unit, Institute of Virology, University of Glasgow, Church Street, Glasgow G11 5JR, UK

BMC Systems Biology 2010, 4:22  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-4-22

Published: 12 March 2010



An old debate has undergone a resurgence in systems biology: that of reductionism versus holism. At least 35 articles in the systems biology literature since 2003 have touched on this issue. The histories of holism and reductionism in the philosophy of biology are reviewed, and the current debate in systems biology is placed in context.


Inter-theoretic reductionism in the strict sense envisaged by its creators from the 1930s to the 1960s is largely impractical in biology, and was effectively abandoned by the early 1970s in favour of a more piecemeal approach using individual reductive explanations. Classical holism was a stillborn theory of the 1920s, but the term survived in several fields as a loose umbrella designation for various kinds of anti-reductionism which often differ markedly. Several of these different anti-reductionisms are on display in the holistic rhetoric of the recent systems biology literature. This debate also coincides with a time when interesting arguments are being proposed within the philosophy of biology for a new kind of reductionism.


Engaging more deeply with these issues should sharpen our ideas concerning the philosophy of systems biology and its future best methodology. As with previous decisive moments in the history of biology, only those theories that immediately suggest relatively easy experiments will be winners.