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Beyond reductionism – systems biology gets dynamic

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Is biology just complicated physics? Can we understand living things as complex machines, with different parts dedicated to specific functions? Or can we finally move to investigating them as complex, integrative, and dynamic systems?
For many decades, mechanistic and reductionist approaches have dominated biology, for a number of compelling reasons. First, they seem more legitimately scientific than holistic alternatives – more precise, more rigorous, closer to the pure objectivity of physics. Second, they work, up to a point at least – they have given us powerful insights into the logic of biological systems, yielding new power to predict and manipulate. And third, they were all we had – studying entire systems was just too difficult. All of that is changing, as illustrated by a flurry of recent papers that are using new technology to revive some old theories and neglected philosophies.
The central method of biological reductionism is to use controlled manipulation of individual comp…

The murderous brain - can neuroimaging really distinguish murderers?

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A new study claims that neuroimaging can be used to distinguish the brains of murderers from non-murderers. It follows in a long tradition of attempts to find biological indicators of violent criminality, from faces to skull bumps to genes to brains. But are the data convincing? Does this study really accomplish what it claims? Is it even based on a well-founded question? And what are the ethical implications?
Here is the abstract of the paper, by Ashly Sajous-Turner and colleagues:
Homicide is a significant societal problem with economic costs in the billions of dollars annually and incalculable emotionaimpact on victims and society. Despite this high burden, we know very little about the neuroscience of individuals who commit homicide. Here we examine brain gray matter differences in incarcerated adult males who have committed homicide (n = 203) compared to other non-homicide offenders (n = 605; total n = 808). Homicide offenders’ show reduced gray matter in brain areas critical for …

Were the principles of life invented or discovered?

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The concept of emergence just seems to rub some people the wrong way. The idea that there may be more in the whole than there is in the parts can seem like it’s cheating somehow, like we’re getting a free lunch, going beyond the basic laws of physics or even somehow violating them. This is especially true for varieties of emergence that claim that assemblies of parts can have causal power that the parts themselves do not have.


The basic premise of reductionism – the prevailing principle in much of modern science – is that all the apparent causality that we see in the arrangements of parts is really reducible to and fully explained by the basic forces operating on all the bits – the laws of physics playing out in ways that are certainly complex, but that require no other level of explanation. Any apparent purposiveness is an illusion, an epiphenomenon that plays no causal part in the dynamics of the system.
The alternative to reductionism seems to require an abandonment of the more bas…