Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Some Thoughts On The Nature Of Biological Sciences

Looney left an interesting comment on my previous post regarding Wells’ pending hysteria over the fact that the PBS Evolution series was still being used in public school classrooms. The bulk of the comment was rambling incoherence and bad analogy - it was the first sentence that peaked my interest:

Last I checked, the admission scores for doctors and engineers were far in excess of biologists.

First, I have to wonder about the legitimacy of that comment - certainly the people I attended graduate school with were generally top of their class; those that weren’t were weeded out during qualifying and prelim examinations. Even if true, however, I suspect that admission scores in those fields function primarily as a tool for cutting students out of impacted majors - I have no reason to believe they reflect innate intellectual capacity. Given rampant grade inflation (the result of considerable student whining “I won’t get into med school if you don’t give me an A++”, parental pressure, cheating and I am sure the occasional pressure from academic/congressional “friends of the family“) and the fact that test scores have more to do with the ability to take tests than to actually understand and apply the information, I find admission scores largely useless measures of performance. As an employer of students, I do look for general trends - students getting a lot of C’s are put into a separate pile from those getting A’s and B’s, but the valedictorians and 4.0 students are lumped with the latter group. It’s what the students have done with that knowledge that counts for me (and a lot of professors I have talked to) - a 4.0 and high admission scores are a dime a dozen and can cover up a lot of weak ability when it comes to using the knowledge rather than simply regurgitating it. Using higher admission scores to weed students also probably says much about the character of the students entering the fields: I suspect most are in it for high salaries rather than the betterment of humanity.

Be that as it may, the sentence nonetheless reflects an commonly arrogant attitude on the part of engineers and many doctors - that those fields somehow require greater intellectual capacity than biology or anthropology. It also implies that their viewpoints should carry more weight. Looney was apparently taking exception to my dismay that creationists typically assume a professional equivalence between engineers commenting on biology and biologists commenting on biology. It is clear he thinks nothing is wrong with this as engineers and doctors have higher admission standards and are therefore qualified to speak with expertise on those disciplines. He reminded me of a discussion I have each semester with my introductory anthropology class on the nature of science.

Ernst Mayer, in The Growth of Biological Thought, has a wonderful discussion on the position of biology within the sciences. The basic theme is that biology is not physics (or for that matter, engineering) and the methodologies and epistemologies of physics are not suited for the study of living things. The efforts of physicists to reduce biology to the sum total of physical laws has not advanced our understanding of biological systems. He quotes G. G. Simpson on this matter:

It is just that living things have been affected for…billions of years by historical processes…The results of those processes are systems different in kind from any nonliving systems and incomparably more complicated. They are not for that reason necessarily any less material or less physical in nature. The point is that all known material processes and explanations apply to organisms, while only a limited number of them apply to nonliving systems…Biology, then, is the science that stands at the center of all science… [emphasis in the original].

In other words, those disciplines that deal only with nonliving systems (such as engineering and physics) ultimately deal with a very myopic view of the universe, particularly in relation to those who study living systems. I would suggest further that engineering in particular as well as most forms of medical practice, as important as they are for our daily lives, focus largely on specific application of principles but are not generally concerned with broader explanations of the world around us (which is probably why many of them can intellectually afford to be creationists). They are, in effect, glorified mechanics.

But in my class, I follow that up with Dawkins, who further explores this relationship of biology to the other sciences. With his usual flair, in The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins suggests not only that physics and engineering are not up to the task of competing with the kind of knowledge exhibited by biologists, but the irony is that, relative to the study of nonliving things, they deal with fundamentally simple phenomena:

We think that physics is complicated because it is hard to understand and because physics books are full of difficult mathematics. But the objects that physicists study are still basically simple objects…They do not, at least by biological standards, have intricate working parts…The behavior of physical, nonbiological objects is so simple that it is feasible to use existing mathematical language to describe it, which is why physics books are full of mathematics.

The point, I tell my students, is that we often think it is easy to grasp biology (and make substantial claims about it) because it does not appear on the surface to be as difficult a subject as physics. But biology deals with systems infinitely more complicated than those in physics (or engineering) and the ability to study and explain those systems requires grasping a body of knowledge inconceivable to most lay people and to many others in different disciplines. Again, this is why it is easy for creationists to cherry pick certain data out of context a paint a picture of uncertainty and apparent falsehoods, when in fact the larger body of data tells a much different story.

But Dawkins goes further and provides us with great analogy on the differences between studying living and nonliving systems:

If you throw a dead bird into the air it will describe a graceful parabola, exactly as the physics books say it should; then come to rest on the ground and stay there. It behaves as a solid body of a particular mass and wind resistance ought to behave. But if you throw a live bird into the air it will not describe a parabola and come to rest on the ground. It will fly away and may not touch land this side of the county boundary.

We can explain the dead bird completely in relation to physics. But the live bird we must explain not only in terms of physics and chemistry, but also anatomy, physiology, zoology, ecology, ethology, paleontology, geology, and a host of additional disciplines. The explanation for living things (what they do and why, how they live and why, where they come from and why) is more complicated than any nonliving system. (I would further argue that adding the cultural complexities of human societies on top of their nature as biological organisms, the complications increase - so anthropology is actually a more complicated science than biology - but don't tell the bio-bloggers that!). The engineer and medical doctor for the most part cannot intellectually grasp the intricacies of biological systems.

So when Looney implies that the intellectual capacity of engineers and doctors allows them by definition to make meaningful statements on the subject of biology…I have to chuckle at the primitive thought process.


Looney said...

I just did a long review of The Blind Watchmaker. It seems to me that he is the usual: Nice credentials, modest intellect, and pretty much clueless about science. The pattern of the book is: ID example, ID example, therefore ID is impossible in biological systems. e.g. Sonar, Radar, therefore bats evolved echo location. My molecular biology texts are this way too. Computer analogy, machine shop analogy, therefore, DNA/RNA/proteins don't have a designer! That is why evolution will always need legal protection.

Regardless, medical doctors are biologists in the sense of the discipline, but not the title. Thus, the Dobzhansky principal, "Nothing in biology can be understood except in the light of evolution" is falsified by every practicing doctor who rejects evolution. Engineers do ID for a living. By attempting to disprove ID, scientists merely trash their profession.

Looney said...

"(I would further argue that adding the cultural complexities of human societies on top of their nature as biological organisms, the complications increase - so anthropology is actually a more complicated science than biology - but don't tell the bio-bloggers that!). The engineer and medical doctor for the most part cannot intellectually grasp the intricacies of biological systems."

What I heard is that biological systems are too complex to understand, therefore they evolved. Certainly if someone smarter has trouble understanding a comparatively simple computer chip today, then a lesser biologist has little credibility to claim he understands something more complex that happened 100 million years ago. We also have to factor in that biologists have been making similar claims since about 1870, which was before biology was a science. This is roughly my point: Evolution science has total ignorance as its foundation.

Duane said...

By undergraduate training, I am an engineer (BSEE). During my entire professional career, I worked with engineers. Even in (semi) retirement, I tend to hangout with engineers. Every Tuesday I have lunch with three engineers. Every Thursday, I have lunch with a larger group of people, four of whom are retired engineers. Whenever I need an engineering opinion, I ask an engineer. Whenever I need an opinion about biology, I ask a biologist.

Just for the record, the engineers I hang out with are extremely smart people. Two of them are recognized internationally as experts in their field. All of them seek information concerning biology from biologists rather than from smart engineers.

Christopher O'Brien said...

Sometimes in the rush to respond to gross (and inaccurate) generalities spawned by creationists, we fall into the trap of generating our own gross assessments. I certainly meant no insult to either doctors or engineers in my post. What I object to is the assessment of biology (and anthropology) as being somehow the equivalent of "postage stamp collecting" (Mayr cites a physicist who describes biology that way) when compared to disciplines such as the medical profession or engineering. We all spend years studying our respective disciplines precisely because the amount of information to grasp is staggering - that goes for anthropology as well as for engineering. Yet there seems to be a popular perception (and I felt it was exemplified by the context of Looney's post) that physical science disciplines somehow require academic achievement, while biological sciences do not. Neither was Looney's post the first time I have encountered this unwarranted bias - throughout my biological and annthropological career I have frequently encountered this, either directly or by implication. And I'm sorry to say it, but it at least seems to come predominantly from engineers and doctors (or students in those disciplines). I certainly do not hold the opinion that ALL folks in those areas feel the same way - so my apologies to you and your cadre of engineer friends if any of you took offense. That part of the response was not my intent.

(And if it's any further consolation, after reading your post I spent a couple of hours in the dentist chair, contemplating my response for my transgressions between jabs of the dental pick!).
All the best,

Looney said...

And I should confess that I don't consider biologists and anthropologists to be stupid. Still, technology and engineering (i.e. ID reality) can never be reconciled to an evolutionary theory of origins that claims to have proven that the most complex technologies are only explainable by rejecting ID. Of course, we can all think like politicians and there will never be a problem reconciling anything.

Duane said...


I thank you but you reacted way too strongly to my comment. My target was Looney not you. It looks like I missed my target, sorry. Sorry for the pain.


Christopher O'Brien said...

Well, you know I thought about that too (that you might have been aiming at Looney and not me), but nonetheless I was feeling a bit guilty about lumping all doctors and, a little pain is good for the soul once in a while (plus there's still a little residual Catholic guilt that wells up from time to time!)....relieved to know I didn't offend you, however!!!

Looney said...

Chris, I have a great mystery I am trying to solve: What is the "Theory of Evolution"? My bio texts mention the theory, then any time a specific discussion comes up, some other ideas appear, but they never derive from a scientific theory of evolution. There are equations proposed, but each researcher has a different one and the equation may change depending on whether it is morning or afternoon. Certainly the equations you might use in anthropology are totally different from those of molecular biology and none would be comprehended by Darwin.

I can agree that a metanarrative of evolution exists. Where is the "scientific theory of evolution" that I have been hearing about for 40 years?

The Ridger, FCD said...

Are you asking for the "single equation" of evolution?

You are indeed an engineer.

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