bookmark_borderWallace’s Thought Experiment on Understanding How Life Works

I recently finished The World of Life, by Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was a naturalist and contemporary of Darwin. He doesn’t get enough credit for the fact that he independently came up with the theory of natural selection, perhaps because he was much more chill about attribution than Darwin was. It was Wallace’s article that prompted Darwin to quickly publish his Origin of Species. (Read more about the history here and here).

In The World of Life, Wallace argues for the existence of an organizing and directing entity that is missing from our understanding of how life works. Below are excerpts from the book, including an illuminating thought experiment which I think is pertinent to biology’s current state of affairs.

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bookmark_borderWhen Biology Isn’t Messy

There is a belief in biology that goes like this: Biology is messy. Nature has no interest in making things easy to understand. So for many scientific questions, there will not be a straight-forward answer.

  • Q: Where and how is a particular memory stored in the brain? A: Biology is messy; memories are distributed all over the brain and stored in many different forms: as molecules and as structure, inside neurons and in the connections between them.
  • Q: How do genes determine the number of fingers per hand? A: Biology is messy; there isn’t a single factor for it. It emerges from the interactions of numerous different genes.

Now it is not always the case that our answers are so unsatisfying. Ask a biologist how the eye works and, well, there are quite a lot of similarities to how cameras work. And living organisms aren’t messy globs of formless flesh. They have an organized body plan, with separate organs, each responsible for specific functions that we can talk about; the heart pumps blood and the lungs pump air.

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