Biological laws

“Physicists come from a tradition of looking for all-encompassing laws, but is this the best approach to use when probing complex biological systems?” This question was posed by Evelyn Fox Keller in an essay published in Nature (Nature 445, 603 (8 February 2007)).  Does biology have laws of its own that are universally applicable?

“Today, biologists are faced with an avalanche of data, made available by genomics and by the development of instruments that track biological processes in unprecedented detail. To unpack how proteins, genes and metabolites operate as components of complex networks, modeling and other quantitative tools that are well established in the physical sciences — as well as the involvement of physical scientists — are fast becoming an essential part of biological practice.”

Apparently traditional mathematical tools are of little help to deal with biological  complexity. Physicists yearn for some kind of a law  which might serve as a starting point in their effort.  Evelyn Fox Keller is concerned that biologists often pay little attention to debates in the philosophy of science, like whether there are  laws of biology. As if these issues were solved in the exact sciences.

All these so called laws of physics are no more than models that were extremely successful in describing many aspects of our reality and fail to untangle the complexity of life.  Yet life is an essential part of our reality which cannot be ignored anymore. In his book Phenomenon of Life (1) Hans Jonas states that
 most of what we encounter on the surface of earth is intimately intertwined with the dynamics of life. A fact which was hitherto ignored by the exact sciences, which attempt to understand (describe) life by reducing it non life (matter).

In order to proceed the exact sciences ought to get rid of their conceptual crutches,  which they regard  as universal laws. Like  Newton’s “laws” which were never relevant to biological processes.

Additional reading: Physics as a fable


1. Hans Jonas  The Phenomenon of Life- Toward a Philosophical Biology
Northwestern University Press Evanston  Ill  2001

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