By Ann Finkbeiner | December 21, 2012 | 14 Comments
For the holiday season, we here at LWON discussed a series of Secret Santa posts: we would assign one another posts about our own areas of specialization so, say, archeology might be assigned to an eco-writer. Fear erupted. What if I get biology? What if I get physics? Count me out! Then we realized: we could confront those fears. We could choose our own most daunting subjects and write about why they scare us. Welcome, then, to our Secret Satans (and no, we’re not part of the war on Christmas, we just like wordplay), seven of them: our cathartic self-gifts for the holiday and our counter-resolutions for the New Year.
What I will not be learning this new year is biology. I’ve alluded to the iniquity of biology before. I’ve disliked biology ever since I learned that genes aren’t just tickety logical copying machines, they’re full of junk that may or may not be useless, nobody knows; that you can inherit changes caused by the environment; that when artificial intelligence scientists try to build a computer the way the living brain is built, they fall flat because the brain has too many neurons with too many connections that use too little power and carry signals much too quickly and nobody knows what rules it uses anyway. That sleep isn’t caused by some nice sleepy chemical, it’s caused by dozens of them, most of which do something else too. That a given process, like inflammation, can both protect and destroy. Biology’s basic rule seems to be Katie-bar-the door.
I’ve disliked biology ever since I learned that one reason fraud succeeds in the biological sciences is that the tests and procedures are often so tricky and so idiosyncratic and require such a careful and educated hand that any given experiment can be done by few people, maybe just one.
I’ve disliked biology ever since the redoubtable Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA but a trained physicist, told me in an interview that in biology, problems can’t be approached as they can in physics, with a logical, fact-grounded theory: in biology, he said, “you can invent far too many theories that are plausible. Plus the use of Occam’s Razor — judging two theories by which is the simplest — is also very dangerous in biology, because things aren’t simple because the way they’ve evolved. What we see today is the result of a long evolutionary process and it was evolved to do with conditions that we hardly understand today and certainly don’t understand in the past. ”
Biology is ad hoc, redundant, messy, and contingent. It’s like bad experimental fiction in which Gus sometimes looks and acts like Frank and sometimes like Zelda and sometimes like himself, and sometimes they look and act like Gus and sometimes like their own selves; and they just mindlessly zip around doing whatever they do; and the plot has no beginning and no end, all middle; and form does not necessarily follow function, nor function, form; and cause and effect have no necessary relationship, they barely speak.
However. I really don’t know that much about biology. I’m a biological creature myself, and everything I just wrote could be wrong or wrong-ish, or right but about something else. Feel free to set me on the right path. Meanwhile, here’s a recommendation: once I read a book written by an eminent evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, when he was 93 years old. The book, his fourth-from-last, was called This Is Biology. He should know and you should take his word over mine. I’m happy to be wrong about biology, provided I never ever have to write about it again.