Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A New Biology for a New Century

Sometimes I read a paper that quite literally raises my pulse rate; a paper that makes me want to run down the street, yelling its messages; a paper that verbalizes things I've felt for some time, but which I've never been able to articulate, myself. This morning, in a three-hour intellectual journey of the greatest importance to how I think about just about everything, I read such a paper:

"A New Biology for a New Century" by Carl R. Woese: Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, June 2004, p. 173-186, Vol. 68, No. 2

Some excerpts; first, the abstract:

"Biology today is at a crossroads. The molecular paradigm, which so successfully guided the discipline throughout most of the 20th century, is no longer a reliable guide. Its vision of biology now realized, the molecular paradigm has run its course. Biology, therefore, has a choice to make, between the comfortable path of continuing to follow molecular biology's lead or the more invigorating one of seeking a new and inspiring vision of the living world, one that addresses the major problems in biology that 20th century biology, molecular biology, could not handle and, so, avoided. The former course, though highly productive, is certain to turn biology into an engineering discipline. The latter holds the promise of making biology an even more fundamental science, one that, along with physics, probes and defines the nature of reality. This is a choice between a biology that solely does society's bidding and a biology that is society's teacher."

"Science is an endless search for truth. Any representation of reality we develop can be only partial. There is no finality, sometimes no single best representation. There is only deeper understanding, more revealing and enveloping representations. Scientific advance, then, is a succession of newer representations superseding older ones, either because an older one has run its course and is no longer a reliable guide for a field or because the newer one is more powerful, encompassing, and productive than its predecessor(s)."

"A heavy price was paid for molecular biology's obsession with metaphysical reductionism. It stripped the organism from its environment; separated it from its history, from the evolutionary flow; and shredded it into parts to the extent that a sense of the whole—the whole cell, the whole multicellular organism, the biosphere—was effectively gone. Darwin saw biology as a "tangled bank" (12), with all its aspects interconnected. Our task now is to resynthesize biology; put the organism back into its environment; connect it again to its evolutionary past; and let us feel that complex flow that is organism, evolution, and environment united. The time has come for biology to enter the nonlinear world."

"In the last several decades we have seen the molecular reductionist reformulation of biology grind to a halt, its vision of the future spent, leaving us with only a gigantic whirring biotechnology machine. Biology today is little more than an engineering discipline. Thus, biology is at the point where it must choose between two paths: either continue on its current track, in which case it will become mired in the present, in application, or break free of reductionist hegemony, reintegrate itself, and press forward once more as a fundamental science. The latter course means an emphasis on holistic, "nonlinear," emergent biology—with understanding evolution and the nature of biological form as the primary, defining goals of a new biology."

"Society cannot tolerate a biology whose metaphysical base is outmoded and misleading: the society desperately needs to live in harmony with the rest of the living world, not with a biology that is a distorted and incomplete reflection of that world. Because it has been taught to accept the above hierarchy of the sciences, society today perceives biology as here to solve its problems, to change the living world. Society needs to appreciate that the real relationship between biology and the physical sciences is not hierarchical, but reciprocal: physics [is on level with] biology. Both physics and biology are primary windows on the world; they see the same gem but different facets thereof (and so inform one another). Knowing this, society will come to see that biology is here to understand the world, not primarily to change it. Biology's primary job is to teach us. In that realization lies our hope of learning to live in harmony with our planet."

This paper demands attention from anyone involved with any aspect of the life sciences!


Laura said...

Thank you for posting this link and this excerpt! I've just been lamenting the fact that anthropology (a supposedly holistically based science) has fallen so deeply into the reductionistic game that we are actually creating theories about theories of practicing theory! For goodness sakes people, get a grip and take a step back, there's a forest there behind that tree.

You are always so inspiring! Thanks!

Cameron McPherson Smith said...

You are correct, Laura; there is no guidance in anthropology today--IMHO. It is currently shattered, whereas it is supposed to be (and passes itself off as) united. This simply must be changed if anthropology is to sustain, and I think we can take some important lessons from this parallel science. I hope you will read this paper and gain something from it.

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