So what's so special about biology?

7 December 2007

Evelyn Fox Keller
Program in Science, Technology and Society


Recently, I was obliged to choose between only two alternatives—either it is or is not possible to reduce biological explanations to explanations in chemistry and/or physics—and I opted for the positive response. But I could as easily have gone the other way. For the question is in fact not well posed. Do I believe that there is something beyond physical and chemical processes involved in the formation of living beings? No, I do not. In this sense, I am an unambivalent materialist. But if by that question one means, can biological explanations be reduced to the theories of matter currently available in physics and chemistry, then my answer is no. And not, as Nils Bohr once argued, because the study of biology can be expected to bring the discovery of new laws (1932), but rather, because (and here, I paraphrase the arguments put forth by Nancy Cartwright (1983)) laws of physics—in effect, by definition—have been developed with reference to a narrow range of possible physical and chemical phenomena, and, one might say, necessarily so. For that is the way with laws—they are developed to describe (or explain) the lowest common denominator of physical and chemical processes, that which is said to 'underlie' the manifest variety of these processes.


N. Bohr, "Light and life", Nature 133:421-3 1933 & 133:457-9 1933.

N. Cartwright, How the Laws of Physics Lie, Oxford University Press, 1983.

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