There are different ways of thinking about living things, at least from a scientific point of view. Clearly, there are many different ways of thinking about life. You could examine all of the traits that are common to all living things, such as chemical complexity or genetic processes, or you could think about biology from the point of view of questions; another way of thinking about biological systems.
Categories of Scientific Questions
There are four broad categories of scientific questions. First, we have existence questions: the process of describing what’s out there in the natural world. What are all the different species of ants, of other insects, of plants? Then there are origin questions: how do things arise?
Third, we have process questions: how do they work? What are the mechanisms by which objects change, in a dynamic sense? The fourth class of questions are applied questions, questions that have to do with specific human needs and opportunities to improve the human condition. Let’s look in detail about how these four kinds of questions apply to living systems.
This is a transcript from the video series The Joy of Science. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Existence Questions: What Is Out There?
First and foremost, biologists worry about what’s out there. What plants? What animals? What microorganisms? This has played a central role in biology for thousands of years. Exploring expeditions of the 18th and 19th centuries always had a naturalist along to describe plants and animals.
Many systematic treatises form the basis of the nature discoveries of these voyages, and they can form beautiful volumes, some of the most beautiful books ever published. One may have seen copies, for example of Audubon’s magnificent Birds of America, or his Quadrupeds of America, with exquisite illustrations. These natural history books are the basic stuff; they answer the existence questions of biology.
Today, the search for life goes on in earnest, and special attention is being paid to extreme environments, where we never thought we’d see life. The discovery of these life forms, and other characteristic life forms, is becoming a very important part of biology today.
Learn more about genetic engineering.
Origin Questions: Where Did Life Come From?
The origin of life is a question of deep religious, philosophical, and scientific interest. Many people have asked questions about the origin of life for thousands of years. The scientific pursuit of the origin of life has to presuppose that life is a natural process, perhaps an inevitable process; it’s a chemical process that’s amenable to laboratory investigation. If life is a miracle, then its origin is beyond the realm of science.
The origin of life on Earth we know is an extremely ancient event, and therefore an inaccessible event; Earth’s oldest rocks, which are 3.8 billion years old, have tiny microscopic fossils of one-celled life. Life began a very, very long time ago, where we don’t have much record.
The search for life on other worlds is also very closely tied to origins, because if we discover life elsewhere, in other parts of the universe, it would imply that life is a common, perhaps an inevitable, chemical reaction that just occurs on worlds that have liquid water. That would be a profound step in understanding origins.
Process Questions: How do Organisms Work?
The third kind of scientific questions are the process questions. They explore how organisms work, and they’re among the most basic questions in all of biology. Many studies in genetics, for example, focus on the functioning of genes, the coded instructions for the individual enzymes that control chemical reactions in your body.
There’s other research that focuses on the mechanisms by which organisms evolve over time. We have developmental biologists whose whole lives are devoted to understanding how you go from a single cell to a multicellular organism, particularly in humans: the question of going from a single fertilized egg to 100 trillion cells, where every cell is in its right place, with its right function. That’s an amazing scientific quest.
On a larger scale, ecologists are trying to investigate the interaction of different organisms, and the environment with organisms in complex ecosystems; so they also are interested in these process questions.
Learn more about life’s molecular building blocks.
Applied Question: Special Role
Finally, there are applied questions. They play a very special role in biological research; that’s because we’re living organisms. Medical research is by far the largest single scientific endeavor in the world, finding cures for cancer, AIDS, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and so on. There are many human afflictions, and medical research, which is rooted in biology, is the key to finding the cures.
Another very important area of biological research for humans is agricultural research: finding new crops, finding a way to grow crops faster and more efficiently, and pesticides. There are all sorts of applied questions that apply to biology relating to our food source. We are, again, living things, and applied questions in biology are never far from us.
Common Questions about Biology, from the Point of View of Scientific Questions
First are existence questions, asking what’s out there in the natural world. Second are origin questions; they ask how do things arise? Third are the process questions that ask how organisms work. Fourth are applied questions, questions that have to do with specific human needs and opportunities to improve the human condition.
The scientific pursuit of the origin of life has to presuppose that life is a natural process, perhaps an inevitable process; it’s a chemical process that’s amenable to laboratory investigation.
Process questions explore how organisms work. They also focus on the mechanisms by which organisms evolve over time.