The ‘why’ in biological sciences


A little while back I saw a group of young students freshly out of school discussing their choice of subjects for higher studies post secondary school, on a table besides mine in a cafe. An unintentional eavesdropping led me to understand that most of them seemed to be science wiz-kids aspiring to join engineering colleges for their love of automobiles or computers. Not surprising then, that these people chose physics and math over biology as their primary subjects of interest. Having been studying biology for a while in life, this was one of those many moments where I strikingly sense a dwindling love for biology among the gen-next, and just smile to myself. I was almost losing interest in listening to their ongoing conversation when I heard something. ‘No but there is nothing new to learn or think about in biology. That’s why I am dropping it off this year. It’s just a descriptive science.’ I was alarmed. Now my eavesdropping became intentional and real. My ears were all tuned to try and see what the rest of the gang had to respond to this statement. And to my surprise, almost everyone agreed to this!! That their Biology textbook was only full of stuff to memorize and read descriptions about. That there is only ‘information’ that the book gives, and not new concepts to learn or think about.

I was completely taken aback. For someone who has spent some amount of time working on and thinking about biological problems in a science lab, this was difficult to take in. How could the youth of this next generation believe that there are no concepts to be learnt, no questions to be answered in biology when it is in fact, a science packed with some of the most exciting questions around us? It just suddenly put me in a very alarmed state!! I mean I certainly have no qualms in anyone having a greater inclination toward non biological sciences; but let misconceptions about biology not be the reason for it!
I was about to turn to that table and sit down and explain the philosophy of biology to these kids. However, before I could respond, I decided to step a gear down and think about what must have made most kids think this way about biology? Is there something fundamentally misleading about the way biology was being explained to them? Okay let’s go back in time. Did we have a similar approach when we were in school or college? Was this the general thought and perception about biology even when I was starting out in college? And sadly, I realized that the answer is yes.

I realized that the approach with which we were taught biology in school is a serious enough culprit in this. Somehow, the biology text book that we start out our studies with is full of diagrams and descriptions of different biological concepts. Articles in the book are written to describe different events and structures in the living body. In short, the how, where and which of different biological processes are detailed very efficiently. But wait. Is that all that is to it? What about the question ‘why’? Does that question even exist for this branch of science? What I now know, is that it certainly does. But I hardly remember discussing this element in biology classes in school. And sadly thus; among the long recitation of descriptive texts in biological sciences, I feel this is what is lacking. The question of ‘why’ in biology!
We have somehow never been taught to question the ‘why’ in biology very efficiently. At least that is what my case was. All through school or even in college to some extent. My first real introduction to thinking about the ‘why’ in biology started as late as post my bachelor’s degree. That was the time when certain questions started popping to my head about why are certain biological structures the way they are. Specifically in that stage when I was studying viruses and their life cycles; I was seriously bothered by the question of why does this virus exist/live in the way that it does!

I looked around and started realizing that there are a host of biological ‘why’ associated questions around us. Why something is structured the way it is? Why does a caterpillar respond to a particular kind of disturbance which we humans do not sense as a disturbance? Why is there so much diversity around us? Why do parents and off springs look similar? Why are some diseases more likely in certain areas of the world over the others? Why do some medicines work better for some people and not for the others?
These are just some mundane examples of the ‘why’ relevant questions in biology. There are many more out there. The problem with the way I was taught biology so far is, we were always taught to wonder about how something is executed, but not why it is the way it is. And that is why it took me a while to appreciate that biology is all about nature’s miracles, or the more scientific term, nature’s ‘creations’ and a thorough understanding of these comes through questioning why a particular thing is the way it is. A variety of paradigm shifting discoveries were made simply because those were the people who questioned the why of biology.

Perhaps the answer to the why question in biology is a bit more involved and non linear, and not always very easy to handle. Let me try and explain in the simplest of forms here. A thorough understanding of biology necessitates an awareness of the fact that it is an integrative science. The compositional complexity of biological units is quite high. To understand it in its entirety, you may need to apply principles of biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics to it. Yes. It is indeed something that you sometimes may not completely comprehend in isolation. In addition, the composition of biology (read life) is something that is highly variable. There are very few steady equations that you can apply to all of biology. Most biological principles have inherent exceptions and some serious context specificity to the rule. And that is where the so-called ‘other’ sciences come into picture. And that is why a holistic understanding of biology that includes several outliers necessitates an application of the principles of physics, chemistry and mathematics also to biology. Today, an interdisciplinary approach to biology is what has got several chemists, physicists to get interested in biological problems. Because they often find a manifestation of their rules and principles (that they have worked on in their respective sciences) in a fascinating manner in biological systems. For example, studying a living biological unit (cell) includes studying its chemical composition (chemistry), processes such as diffusion and transport and conductivity across its different parts (physics) as also say, its rate of duplication (mathematics).

It’s interesting that the ‘how’ of something often has a singular answer (though not always) since it is most likely built from direct observations of different things and their execution. However, what really gets our thinking center and creative imagination ticking is the why of living things around us. It’s unknown, unexplored, and in most cases, speculative. And this for me is the most enjoyable part of biology. Once you get into the groove of asking these questions around, you will start getting fascinated at every minute detail of biology that you discover. The sooner you sense this, the earlier the appreciation of biology comes to you. Like I said previously, this happened to me quite late in life. I had always been interested in biology, but this was mainly because self formation, self regulation and life processes were something I was always curious about. But to be honest, my curiosity was limited to knowing the ‘how’ of execution of biological phenomena. The realization that questioning the why of things gets us to the vaster and deeper meanings of biology and life came to me only after completing my first degree in biology. Sometimes I still find this funny and weird, that despite not getting a true appreciative sense of biology, we could essentially walk away with even a master’s degree in biology with ease. Now how pertinent is that? I often feel it’s a major limitation of the education system that we have here that we do not bother to infuse the real inquisitive spirit of science as a pre requisite for a degree, and that degrees are bestowed through a rather simple display of scientific information put across on a paper. It’s disappointing hence, that, very few core scientific career interests are sustained through from our degree colleges to professional sciences.

So the bottom-line here? Dear Students, do not dismiss off biology as a science that involves mere recitation of facts. It is indeed a science where the ‘why’ is just as important. Waiting to be answered, waiting to be discovered. A slight difference from other lines of science may be the fact that answering the ‘why’ in biology is often an amalgamation of principles that come from various fields outside ‘classical’ biology. And that exactly is the fun of it. A holistic and integrative approach which can account for the ‘why’ in a branch of science with as much variety as biology. Biology is very much a science of the why. In fact, it’s the science of one of the biggest ‘why’s in this world – the why of life 🙂