Theory in biology

Tom Schneider toms at
Mon Dec 16 09:16:35 EST 1991

>>David Steffen <steffen at MBIR.BCM.TMC.EDU> writes:

>>  When I think about it, my experience is that biologists talk about
>>techniques more than theories by at least 10:1.  The reason for this
>>is that in biology, theories are easy, experiments are hard.

What most biologists call "theories" are often off-the-cuff-hypotheses.  I
think of a theory as a body of interlocked and consistent hypothesies which are
supported to some degree by experimental data.  Physicists have lots of
theories like that, but it's hard to find them in biology.  For example, there
is no theory of protein folding.  There IS, however, a theory of molecular
machines...  JTB 148: 183,125 (1991), which was NOT easy to make (it took 10
years), and I bet it won't be too easy for you to read even though I tried to
write it clearly!

In article <9112132233.AA19320 at> T80SMS1 at NIU.bitnet writes:
>The big problem with most of biology is too much data chasing
>(or not chasing) too few ideas.  Just to insult two particular
>groups :-), look at most of molecular biology and ecology.
>In the former we have people cranking out DNA sequences for
>no more reason than they have a probe for it.  The proposal
>to sequence the entire human genome is the ultimate in this
>* Samuel M. Scheiner

To those of us using information theory, this flood of data is actually rather
wonderful.  The hard part is that GenBank is such a disasterous mess (sorry,
gota say it like it is!) that doing the analysis is very labor intensive.  In
particular, most people don't do a simple information analysis and generate a
sequence logo even on their own systems.  NAR 18: 6097, 1990.

> How often do you read a paper in either field that starts out, "In order to
> test theory X we did..."?

See: NAR 17: 659 (1989)

  Tom Schneider
  National Cancer Institute
  Laboratory of Mathematical Biology
  Frederick, Maryland  21702-1201
  toms at

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