How does homeostasis happen? Integrative physiological, systems biological, and evolutionary perspectives

Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2019 Apr 1;316(4):R301-R317. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00396.2018. Epub 2019 Jan 16.


Homeostasis is a founding principle of integrative physiology. In current systems biology, however, homeostasis seems almost invisible. Is homeostasis a key goal driving body processes, or is it an emergent mechanistic fact? In this perspective piece, I propose that the integrative physiological and systems biological viewpoints about homeostasis reflect different epistemologies, different philosophies of knowledge. Integrative physiology is concept driven. It attempts to explain biological phenomena by continuous formation of theories that experimentation or observation can test. In integrative physiology, "function" refers to goals or purposes. Systems biology is data driven. It explains biological phenomena in terms of "omics"-i.e., genomics, gene expression, epigenomics, proteomics, and metabolomics-it depicts the data in computer models of complex cascades or networks, and it makes predictions from the models. In systems biology, "function" refers more to mechanisms than to goals. The integrative physiologist emphasizes homeostasis of internal variables such as Pco2 and blood pressure. The systems biologist views these emphases as teleological and unparsimonious in that the "regulated variable" (e.g., arterial Pco2 and blood pressure) and the "regulator" (e.g., the "carbistat" and "barostat") are unobservable constructs. The integrative physiologist views systems biological explanations as not really explanations but descriptions that cannot account for phenomena we humans believe exist, although they cannot be observed directly, such as feelings and, ultimately, the conscious mind. This essay reviews the history of the two epistemologies, emphasizing autonomic neuroscience. I predict rapprochement of integrative physiology with systems biology. The resolution will avoid teleological purposiveness, transcend pure mechanism, and incorporate adaptiveness in evolution, i.e., "Darwinian medicine."

Keywords: allostasis; allostatic load; autonomic nervous system; catecholamines; homeostasis; homeostat; sympathetic noradrenergic system; systems biology.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Homeostasis / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Physiological Phenomena*
  • Physiology / history*
  • Systems Biology*