Is Biology Science?

(2002)

Quantum physics and biochemistry is real, hard as nails science, say many physicists and also, it appears, those who write SF books and screenplays. But, reproductive biologist Jack Cohen asks, is biology a science?

 

Yes of course it is, you and biologists reply. Indeed so do I smugly, because biology is the ‘science whose time has come’. First there was late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century atomic and quantum physics. Then there was 1930’s chemistry; polymer chemistry especially. Then biology got on to DNA in the 50’s and 60’s, and well-financed biotech companies are now striving to make genes save the World. Of course biology is science, even ‘Science’… except perhaps all those new bio-techniques that are now so automated they’re really just engineering, or even off-the-shelf technology – look at all those adverts in Nature! However, several very different recent experiences have made me realise that much – perhaps most – of the rest of the World doesn’t think so. Biology, they say, is not real science. So here are some thoughts on biology as science, or not, for consideration by teachers, by Ministers of the Crown and the cloth, by gene meddlers and Assisted Conception embryologists (I do that last bit, too). And by the media’s science correspondents and ‘public understanding of science’ biologists.

In summer 2002, I was at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Lots of biologists presenting, for sure. But… one very popular event was a presentation by three famous astronomers: ‘Is There Life Out There?’ I prefaced my first question to them by a little imaginative scenario: three biologists discussing the properties of the black hole in the middle of our galaxy. It was very clear that the astronomers really believed that they could discuss ‘life’ professionally, whereas everyone saw biologists talking about black holes as absurd.

At the same Festival, a ‘Making Science Available’ discussion produced a chain of cliches, where several science journalists explained how they knew all about genetic modification - when it was transparently clear to a few of us that they would score less than zero in a first-year university biology exam. Conservation, artificial reproductive techniques, these were "simple in substance"(but biochemistry was "complex"). Lewis Wolpert was characteristically direct, pointing out very forcefully that he knew more developmental biology than any of them. (He did not say that that was why he got his salary, why they had asked him there.) He agreed that he had to inform decision-makers about the practical implications, as he saw them. But there was no chance, short of getting a very good biology degree and gaining lots of research experience, that any of them could have any authority whatever about the substance of developmental biology. Or of those other topics they were so wise about. Hear, hear.

Most dramatic for me is the place of biology in science fiction, especially in the creation of pretend-alien scenarios for films. It isn’t there!

Authors, film producers and directors, special-effects teams go to physicists, especially astrophysicists, to check that their worlds are workable, credible; they go to astronomers to check how far from their sun a planet should be, and so on. They even go to chemists to check atmospheres, rocket fuels, pheromones (apparently theyre not biology….), even the materials that future everyday clothes (not only spacesuits) will be made of. They do go to self-styled "astrobiologists", who are usually astronomers or astrophysicists who remember some Biology 1.01 (or think they could if pressed). Between them they invent reptiloid "aliens" (who are cold-blooded enough to do all those dastardly things no warm-blooded American male could do…), feline aliens (who have the psychology of the household cat writ large, especially by more mature female authors…), dinosaur "aliens"…. Or giant ants. Or were they mut-ants, I don’t remember (but how many screen mutations have you seen that change the recipient, not its progeny?). Or a vast array of "alien" human actors with a bit of wax, as easy on the Special Effects Dept as the Pure Energy aliens, or the Aliens on mid-day TV shows who magic things out of the air and see through clothing (do their eyes emit or receive X-rays?), and which otherwise free the writers from having to produce a consistent plot. Or Vulcans who can produce viable offspring with humans (when even our cousins the fish can’t – mermaids are even less breedable than Spock). These people know that they don’t know about physics, or astronomy, or chemistry. Those disciplines are real science. So they get help. But the biology seems so ‘obvious’ to them … and they don’t realise that it feels just the same to be sure and wrong as sure and right! Of course, those of us that agree biologists can see that all those anthropomorphs can’t be alien, they’re vertebrate mammals and must share our ancestry here on Earth. They can’t see that ET can’t be e-t, that the ‘Alien’ doesn’t work - except in its primary purpose, scaring the living daylights out of the audience with the bursting-out-of-chest routine (how can a parasite pre-adapt to immune-responses, and not being felt in the chest when it’s bigger than your heart?). Biology questions don’t seem professional to the people who design these scenarios; it’s like folk psychology or philosophy – everyone has "a right to" an opinion.

Now I should say here that I have invented about forty biologically-reasonable… well, credible…. alien ecosystems with a variety of authors .by Niven, McCaffrey, Harrison, Gerrold and others. But early on they all thought that biological science was malleable in ways that physics and chemistry, astronomy and even geology, are not. Ian Stewart and I are publishing Evolving the Alien in September (see the review on this site) to show something of the logical geography of the vast imaginative biological phase space around our terrestrial biology, a real General Biology (but our Science of Discworld books with Terry Pratchett make the same points even less solemnly).

Some years ago Graham Medley and I produced a vade mecum for biology post-graduates, and called it ‘Stop Working and Start Thinking: How to Become a Scientist’. We used agricultural, clinical and forensic examples, fluorescence microscopy and animal reproduction experiments, to illuminate new ways of designing experiments – not using statistics to make sense of the results afterwards, but putting in the couple of weeks’ planning that produces very persuasive results without any un-obvious statistics. (We don’t like "Mean Field" statistics in biology as a general rule: the mean field – average – human has one ovary, one testis, one breast and half a penis!) Several people who have bought it – or even just looked at it in the bookshop – have complained that it hasn’t got any "real" science in it, "only biology"! So there you are, biology is not a science!

I have been involved with several British Water Boards as they were, Water Companies now. They employ a few biologists for their sewage treatment systems, but mostly chemists (using BOD -biological oxygen demand) as if it has meaning - and civil engineers. I have helped to prevent several civil and amenity lakes from becoming meadows as they silt up (the major secret is, as the Victorians and the designers of castle moats knew, to lose the dirty water from the bottom, not the cleanest over the weir…). My customers have been uniformly surprised that I am a biologist, and can do real practical things like using water flow to repair lakes. And that my measures of the health of lakes is mostly the protist (many of the single-celled species) communities (indicator organisms like the "sewage fungus" communities). I have the strong impression that the Water Companies would sooner act on a meter reading than an assessment of an ecosystem. But this is true of aquarists too. Tropical fish hobbyists would much sooner "believe" a pH reading than observe their fish carefully – or the microscopic fauna - and tropical-marine hobbyists have a great list of chemical/physical assessments that they believe in, from "alkali reserve" to calcium concentration to nitrite (a useful one, tied to biology) and so on. A lens, for looking at what beasts live in the coral sand, is much more informative, I think, and more fun. But it’s biology, so you wouldn’t bet money on it… not like "alkali reserve" chemistry.

OK. So where do we go from here? Well, let us start by realising that school biology is not adequate for professional decisions be it GM crop separation, therapeutic cloning, or fertility therapies. Nor should biology be marginalised compared to astronomy or computer science in science fiction, for that way lies continued marginalisation in the real world. Instead we need to recognise that useful explanation, in biology as elsewhere, requires genuine high-level knowledge and understanding of the substance as well as of the issues.

 

Jack Cohen is a reproductive biologist, though the Concatenation team note that he is also a reproducing one as he has six children. Aside from being a Fellow of the Institute of Biology, Jack is also active on the SF circuit both as a fan and recently an author (see the Concat fiction reviews index), and as a consultant to other SF authors whose biology requires a little more solidity.



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