Monday, June 29, 2009

The Progression of Biology

I was just thinking about biologists. None specifically. Biologists as a career path. I was thinking about how their focus has slowly changed over the years. I love the fact that science is a living, evolving practice, shaped both by its own discoveries, and by the environment it functions inside of.

Here's my take on the shifting role of biologists. As a young science, biology was mainly concerned with discovery. Finding and identifying new species, learning about the basic functioning of elaborate ecosystems, and understanding how animals and plants adapt to their surroundings. Biology was all about filling in the holes in our basic understanding of our living world, a science devoted to learning about things because they were there.

Slowly though, as human activities began to adversely affect our planet, a large swath of biologists switched from pure understanding to conservation. How do we save the great biodiversity our planet spent millions of years cooking up? We now needed to understand exactly how our activities impacted our environment, and how we could mitigate some of the damage. Biology matured, and a purpose was tagged onto a search for understanding which was, up until that point, for it's own sake. And this aspect of the science of life has become even more desperate and personal as we've realized how much a part of our ecosystem we are, and how our impact on the planet is beginning to adversely affect us.

While this shift is going on, technology advances. Discoveries are made across many different disciplines which have lasting affects on the practice of science. Biologists, armed with the constantly improving tools genomics provides, are moving slowly from a passive stance, simply studying life as it is, to a much more active mentality, modifying live to certain ends, and eventually creating custom life. That, to me, is a very interesting paradigm shift, because it marks the moment we move from just studying life with technology to life becoming the technology.

That, I think, is where the science of biology is ultimately taking us. A fusion of life and technology. Life as technology and life merged with inorganic technology. The fusing of robotics and computer science with biology. Cyborgs, if you will. Biology enhanced by circuitry and physical technology. And biological computing, using cells and proteins to create computer systems able to grow and evolve. Artificial brains, in a sense. It's a merging of all available technologies to improve human existence.

And it's not selfish. The evolution of the study of biology is ultimately caused by our deep concern for life. At a basic level want to learn about it, know its inner-most functions intimately, and deeply understand processes once unfathomable. When these systems are threatened we move to protect them, also because of our innate concern for life. And the more deeply we understand life, the more we appreciate how important it is to protect it. And once safe, our concern drives us to improve life. To learn new ways to repair it and heal illness. To amplify its natural abilities for positive ends. To fuse all available technologies into its structures, all in an effort to make life on this planet more robust, healthier and more positive for ourselves and our co-inhabitants.

The study of life has become a study of the planet as a whole, our place in it, and how best to continue that existence, in both senses of the phrase.


  1. At any rate, I liked some of the vadlo scientist cartoons!

  2. Funny stuff! Thanks for posting.