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On a theory of biology: two responses

If you're interested what other people interested in the essence of biology think about

you may want to look at the texts of

Needless to say, I didn't understand some technicalities of Mohammed's essay. Equally importantly, however, I think that he is right that a theoretical core of biology as a pure science - unmotivated by its applications in medicine and agriculture - should be developed and should strengthen, much like applied biology surely will.

Now, biology and its mechanisms are extremely important for our lives but they are not fundamental in the physical sense. This simply means that there must be several fundamental concepts in biology including evolution, genetics, and macromolecular dynamics that co-exist.



Razib correctly says that one can't find counterparts of electroweak and strong interactions in a four-chambered heart. There are just too many possible structures in biology that seem comparably important. While biologists won't ever need QCD for their work, by definition, I think that the biologists who are closer to the theory are expected to imagine genetics, evolutionary dynamics, as well as the processes at the molecular scale. Of course many of them do. ;-)

So far I was talking about biology as a pure science. But even in this context, it is of course extremely important not to get decoupled from reality. The degree to which biologists are theorists should form a quasi-continuum. In the zeroth approximation, there should be "real" theorists as well as "phenomenologists" and "experimenters" and the adjacent groups should always interact with each other. This spectrum always protects the theorists from losing their contact with reality, and it gives the experimenters inspiration and increases the chance that their work will lead to qualitatively new insights: it's protecting them from monotonic work without new ideas.

Razib says that the biologists would escape from the classroom once the first integral would be written on the blackboard. That's okay, the proposal is of course not to torture everyone. The proposal is to allow those who are not scared by the integral to approach the subject slightly differently.

André thinks that some of Mohammed's proposals are already reality and sketches the basic notions that, in his opinion, lie in the core of biology. He argues that a single theory of biology is not possible and the constant interplay between theory and experiments is partially fictitious in biology as well as many other fields. No doubt, I agree with that.

The theoretical foundation for all of chemistry and biology has been on the table since the late 1920s: it is called the multi-body Schrödinger equation. However, it is hard to deduce the consequences of this equation for more complex systems. Let me emphasize the word "hard": unlike Robert Laughlin, I really don't think that it is impossible. We have already discussed the tension between reductionism and leading condensed matter physicists on this blog.

If Prof. Laughlin thinks that the laws of superfluids - and the parameters - can never be calculated from the underlying Schrödinger equation, he can refine his argument and post it to hep-th as a falsification of the Standard Model because the Standard Model definitely claims otherwise. Prof. Laughlin thinks that the word "emergent" means that the processes can't be derived from deeper laws. I happen to think that "emergent" means, on the contrary, that these processes emerge i.e. can be derived by an application of the fundamental laws in a complex situation but they could also emerge from other fundamental laws.

More seriously, I think that some young theorists in the condensed matter physics - both hard as well as soft - should be encouraged to try to fill the gap between the underlying equations and the effective equations and notions that are used by the mainstream condensed matter physicists. It is wrong if all the physicists are being discouraged by an anti-reductionist ideology from looking at a body of knowledge that will definitely be established sometime in the future: it is just a matter of time.

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