Understanding systems biology: minds among the molecules

20 October 2006

Carl Pabo
Department of Systems Biology, HMS
National Academy of Sciences Bio
Stanford Bio-X Bio


This seminar builds on ideas that I developed during my recent Guggenheim Fellowship for work on "Theories of Thought", and considers how some of these issues may be relevant in planning overall directions for the field of systems biology. My argument will proceed in three stages:

  1. I'll start by considering several basic aspects of the function of the mind/brain (including issues such as limits of short-term memory, ambiguity and context-dependence in the meaning of symbols, use and limits of strategies for abstraction and "chunking", etc.).
  2. I'll then briefly introduce a range of models that have been used in systems biology (including dynamical systems simulations, network motifs, theories of noise, scale-free networks, etc.) and will point out some significant differences in the cognitive, computational, and informational correlates of the various ways that biological information is represented in these different models.
  3. I'll close by considering how the differing cognitive/informational characteristics of the models may help to determine which types of models will be most useful to the broader biomedical community [which is, itself, comprised of scientists working under the same types of cognitive constraints mentioned at the start of the talk].

Obviously, the scope of the issues raised here means that one cannot be entirely precise ("fully scientific") in representing each aspect of this argument. However, the analysis builds on a rich foundation of data from the cognitive neurosciences, and several constraints seem so clear and so striking that I expect that they will have profound practical implications for the optimal development of this new field.

current theory lunch schedule