Reduced science

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

While still at university, I used somewhat pretentiously to pose the problem of the relation of the electron to Marx. How much could one explain by physics? Could one get from atoms to politics? Yet this is a problem that is very much with us in present day biology. For, if we believe that all matter obeys the same fundamental laws of physics - the theory of everything - then perhaps it is only physicists that are really doing anything fundamental. So are biologists just fiddling around doing trivial research? Of course not, for the fundamental laws of physics tell us absolutely nothing about cells, evolution, or DNA. But, and this but is crucial, there must be nothing in biological explanations that are inconsistent with physics.

This is the problem of reductionism, how to explain complex systems in terms of their numerous component parts. The language of cells is molecules, so it is rational to try and explain the behaviour of cells in terms of the behaviour of the billions of molecules that make up the cell. But do I really want to explain the behaviour of the molecules in terms of their chemistry, and moving to a yet lower level, in terms of quantum mechanics? Most of us are content to understand how DNA codes for proteins without the slightest attention to the chemistry involved. As for quantum physics, forget it. It is a matter of taste what scientists will accept as a satisfactory explanation and the molecular understanding of cells has been startlingly successful.

My confidence in reductionism, which I claim is at the heart of all good science, was however a bit undermined when I learnt that thousands of our genes code for different, but related, molecules on the cell surface that receive signals from other cells, and further thousands are involved in getting the messages to the cells' DNA. What are they all doing and how will we ever find out? If God is in the details we may be in trouble.

The heart provides another nice example of how new properties emerge when many units are put together. Great advances have been made in understanding the properties of individual heart cells and particularly the processes that generate the rhythm. Denis Noble of Oxford University has emphasised that this understanding does not lead naturally or easily to understanding how the cells co-operate to produce a functioning heart. Abnormalities in the rhythm of the heart that can lead to heart attacks can only be understood at the level of the whole heart. He has shown that it is possible to provide this integration by modelling the behaviour of the heart in terms of its individual cells on a computer and the results are very encouraging. Quite new and unexpected behaviours emerge.

How much more so is the case of the brain and behaviour in relation to nerve cells. Our inner ear, for example, is made up of a million finely made moving parts. There is no reason to doubt that our minds behave in the way that they do because of the behaviour of the cells in our brains. But, as yet, the action of groups of nerve cells cannot explain behaviour in the way that molecules explain cells. Just think of language where there is to date no understandable connection to nerve impulses. Nor is it clear that there will ever be. It could be that while we may in the future be able to simulate brain functions on computer we may have little understanding of what is going on. But, be patient. We do not know what new ideas, techniques, and discoveries will give totally new insights. Even consciousness may not be beyond reach.

Changes in the number of component parts in a system can undoubtedly give rise to quite new properties. As Hemingway observed, the rich are different - they have more money.

Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus brought her Bangerz tour to London's O2 Arena last night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
    Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

    From strung out to playing strings

    Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
    The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
    Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

    Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

    The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
    On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

    On the road to nowhere

    A Routemaster trip to remember
    Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

    Hotel India

    Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
    10 best pencil cases

    Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

    Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
    Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

    Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

    Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
    Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

    Pete Jenson: A Different League

    Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
    This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

    The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

    Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis