Laws of biology?

daisyMany people are familiar with Newton’s Laws of Motion and, perhaps aware of the existence of the laws of thermodynamics. These are fundamental laws of physics upon which much of our engineered world is built. But, are there corresponding fundamental laws of biology? The question is important because we need to understand the interaction of engineered products and services with the biological world (including us) because, as John Caputo has suggested, a post-humanist world is coming into existence as the boundary between humans and technology is eroded.

So, back to laws of biology.  It is challenging to identify predictive statements about the biological world that are generally applicable. Elliott Sober argued that there are no exceptionless laws in biology. However, others would point to Dollo’s law that states evolution is irreversible, which sounds like a form of the second law of thermodynamics: entropy increases in all real processes. Indeed, McShea and Brandon have written a book entitled ‘Biology’s First Law: the tendency for diversity and complexity to increase in evolutionary systems’ which sounds even more like the second law of thermodynamics.

There are other candidates such as the Hardy-Weinberg law that allele and genotype frequencies in a population will remain constant from generation to generation in the absence of other evolutionary influences; maybe this is corollary of Dollo’s law?   Or, the Michaelis-Menten rate law that governs enzymatic reactions. But, are there any biological laws that are sufficiently general to apply beyond the context of life on Earth?  Answers via comments, please!

Sources:

Caputo JD. Truth: philosophy in transit. London: Penguin, 2013.

Sober, E., Philosophy of biology, Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1993.

Sober, E., Philosophy in biology, in the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, 2nd edition, edited by Nicholas Bunnin & E.P. Tsui-James, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2006.

McShea, D.W. & Brandon, R., Biology’s first law: the tendency for diversity and complexity to increase in evolutionary systems, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010.

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3 comments

  1. I like to take a slightly different position here. Although it is tempting to parallel ‘the tendency for diversity and complexity to increase in evolutionary systems’ with the second law of thermodynamics describing increasing entropy, we must be aware that these laws are contradicting each other. While in a thermodynamic system the law claims that disorder increases, in an evolutionary system the law claims that order increases. Is it wrong to conclude that a biological system is not a thermodynamic one?
    What about the first law in biology to read “Life is imparted by life”? After all, this summarizes all our observational evidence.

    1. dreheck,

      Nothing that is currently known violates the second law, at least in my five week understanding of it. “Big History” which piqued my interest in understanding thermodynamics and enrolling in Eann’s MOOC, views history, the evolution of man, both biologically and socio-culturally, as increasing levels of “organized complexity.” Paul Davies in The Last Three Minutes (rather old now at 1994) claims that researchers are working to establish principles or laws of organized complexity, which would be alongside those of physics. I have no information about this (because I haven’t had time to look!). Davies makes an argument I don’t fully understand which is that “organization is not the negative of entropy.” However, neither he nor Big History imply a true negation of the second law. This article, which I haven’t read in its entirety says that Big History (organized complexity arguments) violate the “spirit” of the law of thermodynamics, but not the letter.

      http://www.metanexus.net/essay/energy-solutions-perspective-big-history

      Best wishes,

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