Those of us biologists who are interested in exploring other possible explanations for evolution (excluding the religious stuff that isn’t science, so doesn’t get into the ballpark), trying to link biology to the rest of the natural sciences, have often been accused of having physics envy. Well, I think plants are far more fascinating than anything in physics could ever be, but in another sense, I’ll plead guilty.
Physicists seem to have an admirable capacity to look at things in different ways, and not freak out when somebody suggests a new view of the universe. The ideas of Newton are still taught in first year physics, at least as very good approximations. And, of course, we had to get through calculus somehow (If anyone knows who said, “The application of calculus to a bad idea doesn’t help.” please let me know – it’s one of my favorite sayings and I like to give credit where it’s due). So, the physicists still honor Newton, but they moved on. Then there was Einstein’s relativity theory, but at the same time quantum theory was being developed, and it seemed just as valid. The two didn’t seem to connect very well, however. Did the physicists pick one over the other? No, they looked for ways to link the two by contemplating string theory and other grand, overarching “theories of everything.”
Boltzmann came up with the first version of the 2nd law of thermodynamics – there are no perpetual motion machines and everything eventually fizzles out – every chemistry student has calculated entropy using the classical formulas. In the 1970s Prigogine said, “Wait a minute! The fizzling happens in a system close to equilibrium, but in an energized system self-organization occurs spontaneously.” He built on Boltzmann’s work, and he built beyond it. Was he ostracized for disagreeing with the old guy? No, he was given a Nobel Prize instead.
What I love about this approach is the freedom to argue and to try looking at the universe in all sorts of different ways. As Popper rightly said, “All knowledge is human.” There are no “revealed truths” to be had for scientists – it’s an open-ended process, and when one physicist suggests an alternative view, it doesn’t cause all the others to faint or run screaming from the room. They may disagree, but they remain open to new possibilities. Granted, biologists deal with complex stuff that’s closer to home than black holes or an umpteen-dimensional universe. Maybe contemplating our origins in different ways makes us nervous…I don’t know.
Some biologists have argued that biology is “exceptional.” By this I guess they mean that it doesn’t tie easily into the other natural sciences, but it’s a ridiculous argument, a lot like saying the United States is “exceptional,” and so can do whatever it damn well pleases. Nonsense either way – this is just an excuse for not trying to make the connections. Lamarck was thinking about the possibility of evolution 50 years before Darwin. Instead of honoring him, Lamarck has been reviled even though some of his general ideas are coming back into play – not in the original sense, but in the sense that organisms can and do capture information from their surroundings, and sometimes pass it along to the next generation. Then there was Darwin (and let’s not forget Wallace!). Even though I think natural selection is simply an inflated version of artificial selection, Darwin certainly deserves honor. But it was 150 years ago! Let’s catch some attitude from the physicists and contemplate other possibilities without fear of speaking heresy! There’s science and there’s not-science, but in science there ain’t no such thing as heresy!