Before Galileo and Newton, the subject of physics was what has been found in nature, after them the object of investigation is more and more what the researchers have created in the laboratory. Previously physics described what is being, after the discipline began to describe what is possible, what can be. It has developed from a descriptive to a designing science, from a natural science in a narrower sense to an art of engineering. Chemistry was following this way a couple of decades later, and now, at least according to Elowitz and Lim in their commentary in nature of 12/16/2010, the third of the natural sciences, biology, will follow.
The two note that biologists and engineers collaborate better and better with each other, even if cultural differences are significant. The need of “conventional” biologists to understand the complexity of the particular individual living being found is difficult to understand for the engineers. They are more interested in describing systems that represent a necessary biological function in the most simple, controllable and reproducible manner. Not the way a creature actually expresses a function is interesting for them at first, but the feasible and possible ways to realize this function. In this way life functions can be designed and therefore – according to the engineers – they are also understood. The concept of “intelligent design” gets a real new meaning here.
Although the commentators write that both sides should learn from each other, they want to strengthen the engineering thinking in biology. And it is quite clear that this thought, in physics and chemistry, and perhaps also in economics and sociology, is a great help for the understanding of processes, and it will be also useful to biologists.
On the other hand, this thinking also poses a danger. The things designed by the human spirit and realized in the laboratory, may be confused with nature itself. A self-critical reflection on the implications of design thinking in physics and chemistry would be a necessary condition for preventing biology from the same path as her sister-disciplines strikes, possibly with far more disastrous consequences.
What does that mean? Take the example of thermodynamics, which was from its first day on an engineering science, developed to allow machines to facilitate the work in factories and increase the profits of the machine owner. Basically, nothing to say against both, but it is worth to think about what happens when the inventions and designs leave the researchers desks and science labs and come – in a double sense – into contact with nature.
The first is the nature with which the machine exchanging materials and energy – always in a way that no researcher has ever seen before. Today a major part of scientific resources will be used for solving the problems that would not exist without scientific prowess, and therefore we believe we have found a mechanism for protection against adverse effects of research and development, consisting of high security standards and strict legal frameworks. But this is deceptive, because these mechanisms are developed only for known or predictable risks, whereas those problems that we still do not know can not be minimized by risk management.
On the other hand, the scientific product meets the human nature in all its diversity when it leaves the lab. There is the desire of industry for new markets, as well as the aspirations of the people to lead a carefree life without sickness or suffering, and finally, the scientist himself, and his desire for recognition and his hope that his hard work may show fruit outside the laboratory. Human nature takes scientific results from the inventor’s hand and moves it in unexpected directions – and the nature out there responded to this in a sudden, mysterious way.
Considering this, one would hope that the two cultures that come together just as in biology, that of “conventional” biologists and that of the engineers will really learn from each other mutually. The astonishment at the variety and complexity of real living beings, admiring especially the misunderstood, can prevent them from believing that they can “master” their own product when it is released from the laboratory and exposed to nature itself.
Elowitz M, & Lim WA (2010). Build life to understand it. Nature, 468 (7326), 889-90 PMID: 21164460