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Fundamental Questions in Biology

  • Simon A Levin
  • Published: September 12, 2006
  • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040300
  • Published in PLOS Biology

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Yes, but it's not so easy

Posted by plosbiology on 07 May 2009 at 22:14 GMT

Author: Damon Lisch
Position: Research Professional
Institution: U.C. Berkeley
E-mail: dlisch@berkeley.edu
Submitted Date: September 30, 2006
Published Date: October 1, 2006
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

I read with some interest your recent editorial concerning the "big" questions in biology. As you say, "more" really can be different, but what I think actually happens is considerably less interesting than what one might expect, perhaps because most working biologists are ill-equipped to actually confront the questions that you raise. We (collectively) really don't know the first thing about how complex biological systems actually function. Yes, we know a great deal about the component parts, and yes, we have gathered a great deal of "genomic" or global information about DNA sequences and patterns of expression, but what have we really learned? Generally, it's facts like, "X percent of the genome expresses at a higher level under Y conditions", but we have no idea as to what that means. Theoretical models are largely useless, since they have no predictive power (or only "retrospective predictive power", as a colleague recently told me).

We could turn to ecological and evolutionary theory, but those theories are again, poor predictors of future behavior of any actual biological system, making it impossible to actually test their accuracy. Let's face it: our analytic powers are currently completely inadequate to the task. We have no idea as to how to predict what "emergent properties" might arise from any given biological system.

Therefore, I would suggest that the first thing that we should do is to admit our ignorance with respect to understanding complex biological behavior. Unfortunately, most scientists involved in theoretical biology are particularly ill-equipped to actually confront the problems that you raise because the most important thing they could do is to show what we don't know, rather than what we do. Perhaps we should start with a very clear understanding of what we don't know about biological systems before we even begin our exploration of their nature.

No competing interests declared.