Where are Biological Sciences Going?
The natural world consists of hierarchical levels of complexity that range from subatomic particles and molecules to ecosystems and beyond. This implies that, in order to explain the features and behavior of a whole system, a theory might be required that would operate at the corresponding hierarchical level, where self-organization processes take place. Historically, biological research has (mostly) focused on questions that could be answered by a reductionist program of genetics. The organism (and its development) was considered an epiphenomenon of its genes. However, the awareness of the limits reached by the strictly reductionist approach in biological sciences became almost a common place in scientific community and a profound rethinking of the biological paradigm is now underway.
Still controversial is the nature of the strategies to get rid of this bottleneck. Some are confident that the brute force of big data can give the solution ‘for free’ by the simple ‘rational organization’ of raw information. Yet, besides the relevance of new computer-based tools, it is unlikely that mere technological improvement could give any relevant solution. Indeed, what we need is a conceptual revolution.
This ‘paradigm change’ will have profound scientific and philosophical consequences, given that it implies the search for general principles on which a cogent theory of biology might rely.
Because much of the logic of living systems is located at higher levels, it is imperative to focus on them. Indeed, both evolution and physiology work on these levels. A Systems Biology approach is needed to catch such a complexity. Accordingly, this new perspective will entail epistemological and methodological issues as well. Thereby, Systems Biology cannot be considered a ‘simple’ ‘gradual’ extension of Molecular Biology. In this light the explanatory import of experiments and simulations should be reconsidered too for the biological sciences.
This is the ‘vision’ underlying the upcoming meeting “Where are the biological sciences going”. In these three Roman days, physicians, biologists, physicists, mathematicians and philosophers will share their ideas on this ‘organism centered’ biology to come.
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