Many people are familiar with Newton’s Laws of Motion and, perhaps aware of the existence of the laws of thermodynamics. These are fundamental laws of physics upon which much of our engineered world is built. But, are there corresponding fundamental laws of biology? The question is important because we need to understand the interaction of engineered products and services with the biological world (including us) because, as John Caputo has suggested, a post-humanist world is coming into existence as the boundary between humans and technology is eroded.
So, back to laws of biology. It is challenging to identify predictive statements about the biological world that are generally applicable. Elliott Sober argued that there are no exceptionless laws in biology. However, others would point to Dollo’s law that states evolution is irreversible, which sounds like a form of the second law of thermodynamics: entropy increases in all real processes. Indeed, McShea and Brandon have written a book entitled ‘Biology’s First Law: the tendency for diversity and complexity to increase in evolutionary systems’ which sounds even more like the second law of thermodynamics.
There are other candidates such as the Hardy-Weinberg law that allele and genotype frequencies in a population will remain constant from generation to generation in the absence of other evolutionary influences; maybe this is corollary of Dollo’s law? Or, the Michaelis-Menten rate law that governs enzymatic reactions. But, are there any biological laws that are sufficiently general to apply beyond the context of life on Earth? Answers via comments, please!
Caputo JD. Truth: philosophy in transit. London: Penguin, 2013.
Sober, E., Philosophy of biology, Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1993.
Sober, E., Philosophy in biology, in the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, 2nd edition, edited by Nicholas Bunnin & E.P. Tsui-James, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2006.
McShea, D.W. & Brandon, R., Biology’s first law: the tendency for diversity and complexity to increase in evolutionary systems, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010.