Systems biology‘ is the label of the new interdisciplinary field of study of organisms as integrated and interacting networks of genes, proteins and biochemical reactions. In an essay in the 8 February issue of Nature (vol 445, 2007), MIT historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller discussed the clash between a traditional physics and a traditional biology culture as they meet in this new scientific trading zone.

What is the most productive research strategy for ‘systems biologists’? Looking for general laws, as physicists are trained to do? Or focusing on particularities and evolutionary contingencies as biologists use to? “Perhaps it is time to face the issues head on, and ask just when it is useful to simplify, to generalize, to search for unifying principles, and when it is not”, writes Keller. She doesn’t believe one should “expect to find any laws governing the search for generalities in biology” and therefore physicists’ new interest focus on biology will probably “demand a shift in epistemological goals, even the abandonment of their traditional holy grail of universal ‘laws'”.

All this is fascinating stuff for anyone interested in biomedical science studies, because ‘systems biology’ is beginning to have an impact on medical schools’ research and teaching strategies as well. So those who would like to discuss these and other issues with Evelyn Fox Keller might consider attending her lecture on “Systems Biology and the Search for General Laws” at the University of Leeds on Wednesday 2 May at 3.15 to 5.00pm.

Those staying the following two days can also attend a postgraduate/postdoctoral seminar at the Leeds History and Philosophy of Science Division on Thursday 3 May, and finally a symposium entitled “Making Sense of Science: Historical and Philosophical Themes in the Work of Evelyn Fox Keller” on Thursday 3 May and Friday 4 May 2007 — where a number of scholars from a range of disciplines will gather to reflect on two major themes in Keller’s recent work: “The Public Lives of Gene Talk and “Science at the Physics-Biology Nexus”.

More details here.

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