What Is Mathematical Biology?

Michel Kerszberg mkersz at pasteur.fr
Tue Feb 6 08:55:31 EST 1996


I consider myself a practicing theoretical biologist, so let me add my
pinch of salt.

I wrote "theoretical", not "mathematical" in order to emphasize that I
am interested in *biology*, not mathematics.

I can see two main goals to the discipline.

1) There are problems in biology that transcend the molecular or even
organic level in a variety of ways. The most striking question of this
type, for which we have essentially no simple or convincing answer,
is: why does sexual reproduction exist? Another one: why are there
multicellular organisms (unicellulars are extremely successful).

2) The phenomena of, say, embryonic development, are so complex and
intricate that what can be done by a single experimentalist is usually
just looking at how one little pathway, molecule or gene
contributes. The global picture escapes this approach
completely. "Putting it all together" is one goal for theoretical
biology.

Now "putting it all together" means you must know a lot more biology
than the practitioner at the bench, who usually knows more than you just about
*his* little experiment and a few related ones. This is especially
true if you want to contribute to *biology*, not mathematics.

Once you know a lot, you must decide what problem is interesting or
tractable, and just what type of mathematical formalism will do the job
you expect to do (and not more: biologists are not interested in
beautiful equations -- even if they are impressed by them).

I can think of one person who may summarize in his own person the
qualities required: John Maynard-Smith, of the University of Sussex
(UK). His latest book is an example for all theoretical biologists:
the title is "The Major Transitions in Evolution", by JMS and Eors
Szathmary, Oxford U.P. (or is it Cambridge U.P.?)

Best of luck,

Michel.
 
-- 
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