biology, Law, philosophy, philosophy of science, physics, science
Science is our way of trying to understand the universe, to make sense of the patterns of objects and behaviours around us and explain the regularity of the world we experience. We use several different words to characterize the ideas and explanations we come up with. A hypothesis is an informed conjecture, a speculation about world which needs to be tested, while a theory is a well-supported, coherent framework which explains some aspect of the universe. Scientific “laws” seem to fall somewhere in between; while they’re very well-supported, they tend to assert things about the world rather than offer an explanation. For example, Newton’s law of gravity enables us to predict the gravitational attraction between two objects but doesn’t explain why objects are attracted to each other.
Most of the laws that people are familiar with probably come from physics or chemistry. What about biology? Does biology have laws? One candidate might be “every species will either speciate or go extinct”. It may seem uninspiring or simplistic, but it’s not that different from Newton’s first law of motion: “objects in motion tend to stay in motion and objects at rest tend to stay at rest unless disturbed by an outside force”. It may not really explain what’s happening, but it does capture a reliable pattern we observe and, at least to me, suggests that something deeper underlies it.
Maybe we should look for an example with more weight, something which is more insightful and not just descriptive. How about “populations of living creatures evolve via natural & sexual selection and/or genetic drift.” That has a bit more depth than the first suggestion; it’s even part of an elaborate theoretical framework involving lots of equations (for those who suffer from math envy). Sure, there’s room for argument — especially about what “living creatures” means — but let’s assume we could agree about the wording: could it be a law of biology? Why or why not?
So here’s my question: Is it possible for there to be “laws of biology”? It’s a pretty big topic, so maybe these prompts will help us get started:
- What do you think “law” means (in the contest of science)?
- Which of my suggestions is a better candidate for a “law of biology”?
- Can you suggest any other potential laws of biology?
- Why is it so much easier to talk about laws of physics?
- What about chemistry? Economics? Anthropology?
Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.
Maybe: “Living organisms harvest energy and use it to distance themselves from chemical equilibrium”
That’s not a bad suggestion, I think.
Oh, and about why the laws of physics and chemistry are easier to express I believe that is because purely physical systems are simpler and therefore easier to treat mathematically. Someone said once (cannot remember who) that we know more about the inside of the sun than about our own brains, and this is undeniably true…
In my opinion, it’s not just that those are easier to treat mathematically, but they’re also systems which are less obviously contextual. A lot of what we learn about biology has to do with things that are specific to Earth — particular organisms or ecosystems or whatever. It’s not obvious which of those findings are universally applicable and which are peculiar to our little corner of the universe. That’s somehow easier with physics & chemistry, but I’m not sure how to express exactly why. I don’t think it’s simplicity, exactly….I think it has something to do with hierarchy…maybe the behaviour in “higher level” sciences has more degrees of freedom (?) and so tends to be contingent, rather than necessary.
I don’t feel like I’ve managed to really express my thoughts on this, but perhaps that’s because they’re still developing. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your ideas!
Funky Biology said:
Just read your post and trying to think of something:
Natural (and sexual) selection happen on the level of the individual.
That’s a great candidate based on universality (ie, that it would apply everywhere), but I think the problem is that there isn’t necessarily a consensus that it’s true. Many people argue that the gene is the level of selection, while others would contend that selection happens on many different levels. I wrote a post about the selfish gene and levels of selection last year which discusses the debate, if you’re interested.
Funky Biology said:
Good point, there is no consensus on that indeed. So this would have to be redefined as ‘Natural (and sexual) selection happen on certain level (fill in what level we’ve got consensus on that)’. Just guessing here a bit, it’s an interesting thing you’re asking in your post.
Yeah, I guess something like that might work. I’m glad you find the question interesting! One thing that’s struck me in thinking about it is that most of candidates I come up with have to do with evolution. I’m not sure if that says something about me or biology, but it’s got me thinking…
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Mae Meade said:
In this article, it is not clear that there is a Law of Biology. But there are some good points that I totally agree with when it comes to this law. I am looking forward for the best description of a Law of Biology. Thanks! ModernBio.com
Though, we have some laws and theories in biology. But, i don’t think is necessary to be stated
AB (@A_Barbacci) said:
I think this question is central to current biology. This my own reasoning to ask the question “Is biology following law?” If the answer is “no” then biology is and will be only a stamps collection whithut connection between experimental facts. If the answer is “yes” then Emmy Noether’s theorem teach us that an invariant does exist. As living structures cannot escape from physics and chemistry laws then the invariant is energy (the only invariant in physics). Laws describing energy are coined thermodynamics. So, biology are ruled by law of thermodynamics. I reach the same point of view that baldscientist: “Living organisms harvest energy and use it to distance themselves from chemical equilibrium”. Is also the point of view of Schroedinger, Prigogine, Per Bak … If you want to go further I found an article: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpls.2015.00481/full
Thanks for the comment. Your article looks interesting; I’ll have a look at it.
Simon Wells said:
What about Mendel’s 3 Laws?