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What are the Laws of Biology?

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The reductionist perspective on biology is that it all boils down to physics eventually. That anything that is happening in a living organism can be fully accounted for by an explanation at the level of matter in motion – atoms and molecules moving, exerting forces on each other, bumping into each other, exchanging energy with each other. And, from one vantage point, that is absolutely true – there’s no magic in there, no mystical vital essence – it’s clearly all physical stuff controlled by physical laws.
But that perspective does not provide a sufficient explanation of life. While living things obey the laws of physics, one cannot deduce either their existence or their behaviour from those laws alone. There are some other factors at work – higher-order principles of design and architecture of complex systems, especially ones that are either designed or evolved to produce purposeful behaviour. Living systems are for something – ultimately, they are for replicating themselves, but the…

Debunking the male-female brain mosaic

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There is no such thing as a male brain, or a female brain. Instead, our brains are all really a mosaic of male and female parts – we all have an “intersex” brain. This is the claim made by psychologist Daphna Joel and colleagues, based mostly on a 2015 neuroimaging study in humans, but also some previous work in rodents. This idea – especially the catchy phrasing – has caught the public imagination and it has been widely covered in the media. Indeed, a recent editorial in Scientific American, entitled “The New Science of Sex and Gender”, cited this study as support for the view that “To varying extents, many of us are biological hybrids on a male-female continuum”. But what do the data actually show? I will argue below that the interpretation of a male-female mosaic is conceptually mistaken and based on a straw-man argument. I’ve discussed these findings and their interpretation before, as an illustration of how the same data can be used to support diametrically opposite viewpoints. He…