The Scientific Challenge

Biology is in a state of transformation.  Much like the re-foundings of biology that took place after 1800, 1859, 1900 and 1952, the first decade of the 21st Century has seen a major upheaval in biology.  The four previous revolutionary episodes in biology arose from the founding moments of non-creationist scientific biology, evolutionary biology, genetics, and molecular biology, respectively.  The present revolutionary episode comes from the birth of genomics, the cutting edge of 21st Century biology.

The genomic revolution has shown us that genome sequences, gene regulation, and gene function are vastly more complex than previously thought.  The conceit that we could unravel, dissect, and explain most biological functions in terms of simple molecular-genetic pathways is defunct.  What we are facing instead is complex networks of many genes, still more transcripts, and exponentially more molecular interactions underlying each significant feature of development, function, and pathophysiology.

Traditional models for pharmaceutical development and clinical medication are now in tatters.  Yet the power of the new genomic tools gives us unheralded opportunities to systematically identify the molecular and cellular foundations of infections, genetic disorders, and chronic idiopathic disorders.  What to do?

It is obvious to most biologists that solving non-trivial scientific problems in biology will depend on the use of bioinformatic tools to process vast arrays of genomic, transcriptomic, metabolomic, and still other omic data.  The characteristic feature of such data is its sheer magnitude.  But still worse is the fact that the crude syllogistic tools of traditional biological reductionism are wholly inadequate to make sense of such data.

The time has arrived for biology to re-found itself, just as it has four times already, about once each half-century.  In this re-founding, the principles of complexity and quantitative analysis have to be accepted.  As in the re-founding of physics at the start of the 20thCentury, after Einstein’s 1905 publications, we have to give up the traditional intuitive concepts of biology, just as physics gave up the simple certitudes of Newtonian physics.

But if complexity and quantitative analysis have to be fully accepted by the biology of our time, how can we master these challenges?  That is, what are the fundamental tools that we can turn to in order to make sense of the new biology?

I think that the answer is clear.  Biology has to be re-founded using mathematically formal theory derived from evolutionary, genetic, and molecular first principles.  Fortunately, evolutionary geneticists have been developing such tools since the 19teens, about a century ago.  The application of those tools was limited, prior to 2000, by a lack of genomic data.  But now that such data are at hand, indeed gushing forth, we are entering a golden age for the application of evolutionary genetic tools to the problems of biology.

This does not mean that all the work has already been done.  Twentieth-century evolutionary geneticists were working in a vacuum due to a lack of critical data.  As such, like sighted people emerging from a period of prolonged darkness into daylight, they now have adjusting to do.  But they have the formal theoretical methods and experimental tools to solve the key problems that challenge biology in our time.

One of the first applications of the new evolutionary genetics has been a transformation of our understanding of aging.  This has been my particular focus as a scientist.  It is this problem, in particular, where the application of evolutionary genetics to the challenges of the new biology is particularly straightforward.  This arises for two reasons.   First, aging is a problem that has utterly defeated all non-evolutionary biological research strategies.  Second, aging is a problem that is readily addressed by applying evolutionary genetics in the context of the new genomic biology.

In the 55 theses, I outline a 21st Century approach to the problems of aging, both as a general scientific puzzle and as a major medical challenge in our time.  The 55 are thus, in my opinion, a paradigm for the new biology being born around us.

I should be clear that I do not see the 55 specific conclusions that I adduce as final.  Instead, I see them as starting points for a very different approach to the scientific problems posed by aging in general, and human aging in particular.  But once the 55 are adopted as starting points, it is fairly straightforward to implement research strategies for addressing the many important questions that these starting points raise.

On the technological side, I see little promise in continuing to develop pharmaceuticals and other medical treatments for age-associated disorders based on erroneous science.  Yes, sometimes useful drugs and medical procedure are found adventitiously.  Likewise, bridges and cathedrals were built long before modern physics got going.  But once good scientific tools were made available to engineers, architects, and chemists, their ability to build better roads, buildings, and machines exploded.  That, after all, is how industrial civilization was built.  Likewise, I look forward to a new medicine that is founded on the radically more powerful biology which is now at hand.

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