of books by  Novartis Foundation Symposium

NOVARTIS FOUNDATION SYMPOSIUM  is an international scientific and educational charity. Known until 1997 as the Ciba Foundation, it was established in 1947 by the CIBA company of Basel, Switzerland. The Foundation promotes the study and general knowledge of science and in particular encourages international co-operation in scientific research. To this end it organizes meetings and publishes eight books per year featuring the presented papers and discussions from these meetings. Information on all Foundation activities can be found at http://www.novartisfound.org.uk/.

The limits of reductionism in biology
Novartis Foundation Symposium 213
eds. G.R. Bock and J.A. Goode
J.Wiley&Sons, 1998

'The limits of reductionism in biology' addresses the question, if biological systems can be understood using chemistry and physics. The Symposium was based on proposals from the developmental biologists Lewis Wolpert and the physiologist Ken Holmes. Biological organisms are complex entities that show qualities not found in inorganic matter. They are alive, able to reproduce, feed, move, heal, grow from simple to complex, speak, or think. Inorganic matter is the realm of physics and chemistry. Simple objects are being studied and these studies allow to formulate laws of nature. No such laws have been established in biology, they rather are descriptions or rules. Life is based on variation, the very foundation of evolution due to change and natural selection. Biologist of the 20th Century have employed a great deal of physical and chemical methods and techniques to study life. Biochemistry, molecular biology, crystallography, and biophysics come to mind. They represent truly reductionist systems. While these branches of the biological sciences have advanced the understanding of inheritance (DNA double helix) or modern medicine (rational drug design), biology at its best was never dependent on physics or chemistry: population genetics, behavior, cognition, physiology, or cybernetics. Most things biological, so the thesis goes, are non reductionist in nature. Memory cannot be explained by studying chemical bonds, heart rhythms cannot be calculated from quantum mechanics. Speciation events cannot be explained by looking at the structure of nucleic acids. There exists a gap between the molecular and the whole. To overcome this gap means to successfully explain life through a reductionist approach. Most contributors to this Symposium agree that this gap will never be bridged. To prove this idea wrong can be a strong motivation for scientists to tackle the seemingly impossible. This motivation is the driving force to look into ever smaller details of the biochemical machinery of life. To try hard to bridge this gap is important, even though it might simply result in finding the limits of reductionism in biology.

April 19, 2000 /  © 2000 Lukas K. Buehler / go back to Book Review Home