A UNITED BIOLOGY: E.O. WILSON (p4)
Superorganisms are superior as an experimental object, because you can do experiments in the laboratory much faster with a bunch of ants. You can take a group of ants, divide them into ten parts and experiment with them as ten parts. Suppose I were working with the operation of your hand. I could do an experiment in which I painlessly and bloodlessly cut off eight of your fingers and see how you work with two; and then put all the others back on. That's what you can do with an ant colony much more easily. You can separate workers from the colony to experiment, put them back together, and so on.
We're moving rapidly in this area. A little less than 50 years ago, shortly after the discovery of the structure of DNA—one of the epochcal events of science—Jim Watson, one of the first of the newly-defined, full-blooded molecular biologists, came to Harvard.
Jim and I were assistant professors together at the time, and participated in a clash of civilizations. Jim, of course, was leading the molecular revolution and for the time being I was a distinctly overmatched younger leader in organismic biology. For a couple of decades thereafter, molecular biology proceeded in its own way and began to send tendrils of investigation up into cell biology, now organismic biology, past the level of the genome in terms of truly major new discoveries and into the great Pacific Ocean, so to speak, of proteomics, the science of how proteins are assembled.
Meanwhile, evolutionary biology and organismic biology continued to grow in strength and sophistication, and extended their reach on down beyond the organism. By the 1980s we were learning about the genome, the molecular biology itself, and the consequence has been, by the late '80s and '90s and now increasingly, that these two once distant levels are pretty well connected, and people are moving back and forth across them rather easily. Increasingly the study of biological diversity, the variety of life and how it originated, is coming to occupy the attention of even the molecular biologists.
In that spirit of solidifying the newly found unity of the different levels of biology from ecosystems, organisms, and society down to the molecular level of genomics, and with this new-found confidence that we can do this, biology is becoming a unified, mature science, and we now find that the old conflict's gone. Jim and I will be having a public dialogue soon on the relation between DNA and the great discoveries in the molecular period on the one side, and the exploration of the world's biodiversity on the other. We can put those things together in discussion now, and this will be a very interesting conversation. I hope. At the very least it's symbolic of how much has happened in this half-century in biology since we started here in the department at Harvard as adversaries.
At the same time, however, biology is very far from being a fully mature science. A mature science would be one in which we thoroughly understand the following big, open topics:
One is the nature of consciousness and of mind. These are biological subjects, and they're phenomena not just limited to human beings, since we can see their early origins in other vertebrates, particularly the other primates.
Another principal domain in biology that is still largely unexplored is the assembly and maintenance of ecosystems. How do ecosystems—assemblages of plants and animals—live more or less stably for an indefinite period of time? How do they come together in the first place? How are certain species chosen to enter that community? How do they manage to survive? And how does the ecosystem fit together in a way that provides stability?
We're nibbling at the edges of these issues, but community ecology is very far from getting out of its infancy. This is still a very open question of primary importance not only for the biology of the whole but, of course, for the sustainable use of our resources, and for the saving of the rest of life through scientifically-based conservation.
Conceptually, the development of a united biology would also certainly include what we're calling proteomics. This relates to the question of how, after elementary transcription and formation of the proteins, genes are turned on and off. They appear and then do certain things, in part, due to context, location, and pre-existing proteins. It takes one or two hundred thousand kinds of proteins to form a cell.
How exactly do they come together? Most molecular biologists are now focusing on that area. Right now we're at the level of hundreds of species whose genomes have been decoded pretty thoroughly. Once we understand more about the diversity in the genetic code of thousands of species, what strategies will we be able to see the genes following as they create proteins and as the proteins assemble cells? What pathways of evolution have been followed in the course of making what adaptations in the environment?