The uniqueness of biological understanding

2 June 2017

Marc Kirschner
Department of Systems Biology
Harvard Medical School


Biology is a complicated tale that we are only beginning to tease out. It has a cast of countless species, and must contend with immense individual variation, complex processes, morphologies, physiological states, pathways of perception and reaction, and social interactions. Life exists in the physical and chemical world, and many have hoped to explain biology as an application of principles from those fields. In this lecture I will challenge this strictly reductionist path by calling on my own personal experiences in science. While physics and chemistry can help immensely in demystifying the elements of life, some of the most important principles in biology require distinctive approaches even at the molecular scale. An autonomous organism depends on a foundational component of life that never arose before in the physical world – a sense of purpose. As a result of my own scientific experiences, this lecture will concentrate less on heredity and natural selection and more on unique features of how living organisms achieve specificity and generate variation. By looking at biology from these vantage points, I hope to instill a better appreciation for the core processes of life and perhaps inspire some of you to discover new ones of broad applicability.

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