Tag Archives: biology

Citizens of the world

Last week in Liverpool, we hosted a series of symposia for participants in a dual PhD programme involving the University of Liverpool and National Tsing Hua University, in Taiwan, that has been operating for nearly a decade.  On the first day, we brought together about dozen staff from each university, who had not met before, and asked them to present overviews of their research and explore possible collaborations using as a theme: UN Sustainable Development Goal No.11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.  The expertise of the group included biology, computer science, chemistry, economics, engineering, materials science and physics; so, we had wide-ranging discussions.  On the second and third day, we connected a classroom on each campus using a video conferencing system and the two dozen PhD students in the dual programme presented updates on their research from whichever campus they are currently resident.  Each student has a supervisor in each university and divides their time between the two universities exploiting the expertise and facilities in the two institutions.

The range of topics covered in the student presentations was probably even wider than on the first day; extending from deep neural networks, through nuclear reactor technology, battery design and three-dimensional cell culturing to policy impacts on households.  One student spoke about the beauty of mathematical equations she is working on that describe the propagation of waves in lattice structures; while, another told us about his investigation of the causes of declining fertility rates across the world.  Data from the UN DESA Population Division show that live births per woman in the Americas & Europe have already fallen below the 2.1 required to sustain the population, while it is projected to fall below this level in south-east Asia within the next five years and in the world by 2060.  This made me think that perhaps the Gaia principle, proposed by James Lovelock, is operating and that human population is self-regulating as it interacts with constraints imposed by the Earth though perhaps not in a fashion originally envisaged.

 

Laws of biology?

daisyMany 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!

Sources:

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.