“And there are even some engineers in this [biology] class!” – a seemingly innocent remark, but one that contains sentiments often expressed in the biological realm: engineers just don’t really fit in. At first glance, nothing seems out of the ordinary with this statement – and both parties would probably agree – of course engineers don’t fit in. There is just something fundamentally different between these two disciplines, the respective parties would say (or between biology and the other physical sciences, for that matter). An attempt to justify this would then be given in some remark about engineers being good at math, and the matter would be dismissed. But where did this underlying thought come from, the thought that an engineer working in biology is a bit odd? How did these two sciences, birthed from the same fundamental origin, become so “culturally” different? Is there something deeper going on here?
This issue has been in the works for the better part of 70 years, if not more, as the field of biology has matured and became more mainstream. Already at a young age it is ingrained into our children, but we struggle to put our finger on what exactly the issue is. In high school, it’s the dorky, socially awkward kids (generally guys, lets be honest) who have nothing better to do than to write Fortran 77 code to calculate Mandlebrot patterns for the pure fun of it that go into engineering (if you don’t know what I’m talking about here, chances are I’ve proven my point already). The cool kids, the ones who have enough self-confidence to feel that it is actually ok to be smart, often head towards the biology side of things. I won’t even get into the arts.
So what then is this divide that we are so keen to point out and abide by, yet can’t seem to articulate? As I alluded to earlier, the common belief is that engineers are the ones who are good at math, able to do complicated calculations in the blink of an eye. I find this very unsatisfying, as it leaves biologists in a marginalized position: apparently unable to do math, and so relegated to their own corner of the scientific arena. While this stereotype has perpetuated itself and has certainly been true in some cases, I think there is a more prominent difference, namely the ways in which we approach a problem. Let me explain.
In my opinion, the broad scope of the biological approach to understanding something is probably best described as “Top-down”. The system is described as a whole, and understanding is developed as the system is broken down into smaller and smaller functional units. Engineering on the other hand is better described as “Bottom-up”. Here, the fundamental building blocks are uncovered and then pieced together to form the entire system.
Perhaps an example will better illustrate what I mean. I’ll take something we are all familiar with, at least to some extent, the personal computer (here I’m using the computer as my system of interest, but it could just as easily be a recently discovered organism, for example). If an engineer were presented with a computer and asked to figure out what it does and how it works (assuming no prior knowledge), she would most likely end up taking it all apart. She would then proceed to find out what each individual part does before reassembling it and finding out what everything does put together. This process can be very painstaking, especially if the individual parts are very small, but it yields a very thorough understanding of the computer. Hence the “Bottom-up” approach. A biologist, on the other hand, might begin in a completely different manner. He may begin by unplugging the monitor, then the mouse, pulling out the hard drive and so on, until the aspect of the computer he was interested in stopped working. He may then put in a different hard drive, attach a new mouse and find a completely different monitor to see what the resulting changes produce. This can give some big-picture understanding reasonably quickly, but it can be difficult to get to the low-level pieces. This is “Top-down” analysis.
Here you might be getting defensive if you favour a particular approach, but each has its merits, so don’t get me wrong. And certainly the nature of the system of interest dictates to some extent the more favorable approach. But what if, and the scientific community is beginning to realize this, we could apply both approaches to a problem? I’ll leave you pondering because we’ll get to that in a moment. But first let’s have a quick look at the history of how biology and engineering may have diverged in their scientific outlook.
In today’s world of specialization, we are continually narrowing the scope of our thinking while trying to retain a sense of a bigger picture. Things were quite different, say even 150 years ago, when no formal scientific disciplines existed. Charles Darwin himself contributed to numerous fields, such as geology, geography and of course biology. Going back even further, people were not called scientists, but scholars. People like Leonardo da Vinci contributed immensely to the arts, as well as to many areas of science, such as anatomy, engineering, physics and many others. In many ways it seems that in our process of scientific discovery over the ages we have evolved from very general thought into distinct discipline-oriented modes of thought. These modes have become very particular to their associated discipline, and we now continue to use them, often without a second thought, because they are the norm. Granted, it is a little harder to take apart a cell than a computer, but the conclusion remains the same: how we approached the individual sciences affects the progress made within them.
So lets get back to my previous question. Can we apply both the top-down and bottom-up approaches to a single problem? Can engineers begin to work with biologists in a way that compliments them both? This is, of course, a big question. Many institutions now advertise “multi-disciplinary research”, but do they really know what this means? Do we know how to handle such a strange entity like this with two potentially competing modes of operation?
As with most things of this nature, progress has been slow, but indeed it has begun. Universities struggle with the logistics and politics of such a collaboration, and are still exhibiting growing pains. Groups previously resistant to change are now seeing the value and benefit from this new union. But arguably the biggest change that we are seeing is the slow, general realization that maybe science is more complicated and interconnected than we initially might have thought. So not only are our ideas of science changing, but how we think about science has resultantly had to change. And I think this is for the better.
In the paper “Biology’s Next Revolution” Goldenfeld et. al. alludes to this changing attitude. Recent discoveries in biology indicate that the widely accepted notion of species is not what we know it to be. The discovery of horizontal gene transfer is to blame for this, as it predicts that genes can be transferred outside of the typical, vertical gene transfer paradigm predicted by Darwin. At the microbial level it means that cells can no longer be treated as individual organisms, but rather must be viewed as an entire community of individual organisms. Suddenly, the interactions and statistics of a many-body system come into play, beyond the scope of traditional biology. Thus enter the physicists and engineers, who have the expertise to handle this problem, together with the biologists. Goldenfeld sees this as a major turning point for biology, one that will extend into other areas and other disciplines, and I agree. His revolutionary title may not be that far off.
So what is next? If we truly stand on the cusp of a scientific paradigm shift, there is much to be excited about. New questions will be asked, and perhaps some old questions will be answered. The key will be continuing the dialogue between the sciences in an open and fresh way, lest we once again revert to our narrow fields of view. Lets hope that engineers and biologists can learn to get along.
P.S – I hope this title wasn’t misleading. If you were looking for something on intelligent design as the title may imply, I apologize because you won’t find anything, but I couldn’t resist its use. On the other hand, if you’ve actually read this far, it might indicate that the title’s design was intelligent…
N. Goldenfeld, C Woese, “Biology’s Next Revolution” Nature, vol. 445, 369 (25 Jan 2007).