IUBio Biosequences .. Software .. Molbio soft .. Network News .. FTP

Darwin said there is no Theoretical Biology versus Theoretical Physics

HPYockey hpyockey at aol.com
Wed Aug 2 10:57:32 EST 1995

Subject: Darwin said there is no Theoretical Biology vs Theoretical
 Sean Eddy
- Dept. of Genetics, Washington University School of Medicine
- eddy at genetics.wustl.edu

Pierre Philippe, Ph.D                         
Social & Preventive Medicine   
U of Montreal
Quebec                             email:philippp at ere.umontreal.ca

 robison at lipid.harvard.edu (Keith Robison)

ED at molbiol.uct.ac.za ("Ed Rybicki")

labonnes at csc.albany.edu (S. LaBonne)

DEernisse at fullerton.edu (Doug Eernisse)

 Richard Gordon <gordonr at cc.UManitoba.CA>
To: Canadian Society for Theoretical Biology CSTB <cstb at scotia.dfo.ca>
And others who responded.

Also Sprach Charles Darwin in Chapter XV of the 1872 edition of Origin of
"It can hardly be supposed that a false theory would explain, in so
satisfactory a manner as does the theory of natural selection, the several
classes of facts above specified. It has recently been objected that this
is an unsafe method of arguing; but it is a method used in judging of the
common events of life, and has often been used by the greatest natural
philosophers. The undulatory theory of light has been thus been arrived
at; and the belief in the revolution of the earth on its own axis was
until lately supported by hardly any direct evidence. It is no valid
objection (to the theory of natural selection) that science as yet throws
no light on the far higher problem of the essence or the origin of life.
Who can explain the essence of the attraction of gravity? No one now
objects to following out the results consequent on this unknown element of
attraction; notwithstanding that Leibnitz formerly accused Newton of
introducing 'occult qualities and miracles' into philosophy."

 Darwin, in this brief passage, shows a remarkable knowledge of the issues
in physics and astronomy in the nineteenth century. The phenomenal
successes of Newton's theory of gravity, in particular the return of
Halley's comet and the discovery of Uranus, stimulated reductionism and
mechanical explanations in all of science and even in physiology. German
naturalists held a meeting in Innsbruck in Austria and agreed upon the
motto: "Endziel der Naturwissenschaften ist, die allen anderen
Veraenderungen zugrundeliegenden Bewegungen und deren Triebkraefte zu
finden, also sie in Mechanik aufzuloesen." Translated by Ernst Mayr "The
Growth of Biological Thought" page 115: " The ultimate objective of the
natural sciences is to reduce all processes in nature to the movements
that underlie them and to find their driving forces, that is, to reduce
them to mechanics." 

Darwin's remark about the undulatory theory of light refers to Thomas
Young who did his famous two slit experiment that showed that light is a
wave, that is, light is undulatory. This was against the prestige of
Newton and, at the time, contary to his particle theory of light. Proof
that Earth did indeed rotate on its axis was made by the Foucault

Those comments and Darwin's comparison of the inscrutable nature of the
origin of life to the inscrutable nature of gravity shows that he believed
natural philosophy, as science was known in his day, to be a whole not
divided by academic departments as organized in University faculties.
Darwin was not an academician and therefor was not subject to the petty
jealousies in the groves of academe. Darwin was a wealthy man and did not
compete for grants to support his work. 

Darwin approved the use of physics and chemistry in biology wherever they
proved useful. There are many such instances. In particular, information
theory and coding theory form the mathematical foundation of molecular
biology. You will find a number of problems in my deathless prose in which
I have attacked basic problems in molecular biology. Part II of
Information Theory and Molecular Biology is devoted to these applications.
Experimental molecular biologists are justified in demanding results they
can use rather than philosophy of biology.

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muss man schweigen. TRACTATUS
Ludwig Wittgenstein
 Best regards. Hubert. 

More information about the Mol-evol mailing list

Send comments to us at biosci-help [At] net.bio.net