Reorganizing Knowledge in the Life Sciences

Reorganizing Knowledge in the Life Sciences

Jürgen Renn, Olaf Engler

Other involved Scholars: 

Manfred D. Laubichler and Jane Maienschein (Arizona State University)

A group of studies analyzes conceptual transformations within the life sciences under analytical and historiographical perspectives similar to those of the research project on the reorganization of physical knowledge. They aim at understanding the shift from biological theories based on more or less stable entities (genes, organisms, populations, and species) and their dynamics — the “classical phase of biology”— to those focusing on complex systems, contextual information, computational logic, and nonlinear dynamics in the areas of evolutionary theory, systems biology, and synthetic biology.

More recent transformations of the life sciences can, as in the case of the Darwinian revolution, also be understood in part as a response to the growth of empirical knowledge, and in particular to changes in the data structure, often identified as “big data.” But they also reflect the importance of new methods and technologies, especially in the areas of computing and molecular methods, including nanotechnologies. Aspects of these transformations have been studied, also with regard to parallel developments in the humanities and in particular in the history of science . As a result of these transformations of the life sciences, new mental models and theoretical constructs emerge that form the basis of a computationally enabled theory of biology with a focus on complex systems theory at its core, including new interpretations of traditional biological concepts, such as “system,” “regulation,” “network,” and “synthesis.”

In addition, there is now an increasing body of solid empirical and theoretical work that points to the wide range of phenomena (from medicine to economics and from the humanities to the social sciences) that can be productively understood from an evolutionary point of view. Some of this work has recently been reviewed in the context of an Ernst Strüngmann Forum on Cultural Evolution, comprising a treatment of evolutionary perspectives on knowledge.