21.166 lessons from physics and biology?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sun, 22 Jul 2007 08:11:29 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 166.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sun, 22 Jul 2007 08:04:29 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: parallel relations

Michael Morange, in "Physics, biology and
history" (Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 32.2,
2007, pp. 107-12), briefly tells the story of the
changing relations between physics and biology
from the genesis of the latter discipline
(baptised as such in 1802) to the present. Much
here sounds familiar in outline to practitioners
of humanities computing and so gives us more raw
material for our strategic arguments.

As Morange tells this story, biology arose
largely out of vitalism, or the notion "that the
properties of organisms could not be explained
except by the existence of a vital force,
irreducible to physics or chemistry". Vitalism,
which had begun about a century earlier, was a
reaction against the prevailing attempt "to
explain the functions of organisms in terms of
the simple mechanistic devices known at that
time" (p. 107). Though much reviled, vitalism was
highly influential on biological thinking of the
19C. As a movement it was quite heterogeneous,
including both spiritualists and scientists
"simply cautious in the application of the models
of physics to phenomena specific to life" (p.
108). The application of such models swept the
field with the huge successes of physics up to
the middle of the 20C. Philosophers of science in
the Vienna Circle supported the foundation of all
science on physics -- thus the birth of
"molecular biology" (named by Waren Weaver in
1938), likewise hugely successful and even more ambitious:

>There were high ambitions for the development of
>the biological sciences: their ultimate goal was
>the biological transformation of human beings.
>Jean Perrin considered that this research 'can
>lead us, must lead us, to abandon the present
>human being, who has remained unchanged for
>millennia, for higher beings, richer and richer
>in feelings and thoughts, and more generally in
>everything that corresponds in the field of
>consciousness to a more extensive and complex
>development of the brain'.... And the successes
>of molecular biology were such that molecular
>biologists shared the conviction, maybe the
>illusion, that they had discovered 'the secret of life'. (p. 108)

The reductionism that dissolves biological facts
into various physio-chemical components, or
explains biology wholly in such terms, ran into
serious trouble, however. This trouble became
easier to notice, perhaps, once physics (in its
present form) had peaked. Robert Rosen, in "The
Schrödinger Question, What is Life?" (Essays on
Life Itself, Columbia Univ Press, 2000), notes
Einstein's remark to Leo Szilard, "One can best
feel in dealing with living things how primitive
physics still is" (p. 7), then goes on to work
out in detail Schrödinger's attempt to work
toward a "new physics" adequate to life itself.
Morange argues that physicists are these days
much more collaborative with biologists: it has
become increasingly difficult to do creative work
in the field, so physicists are looking for possibilities elsewhere.

In contemplating the history of the relations
between physics and biology, what can be learned
of value to the relations between computing and
the humanities. The phrasing of the question
suggests an analogical connection, physics to
biology as computing to the humanities, and so
raises the further question of how strong this
analogy is. But, I think, if we are honest with
ourselves there is a further, much more perilous
question. As Marilyn Strathern puts it in
"Interdisciplinarity: some models from the human
sciences", Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
32.2, p. 126, "is the connection one of analogy
(how language is being used) or is the connection
an organic, that is a genetic, one (a
demonstrable kinship)?" Is biology more of a friend
to us than physics? More *than* a friend?



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities
Computing | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London |
Et sic in infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).
Received on Sun Jul 22 2007 - 03:25:46 EDT

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