Is 'Systems Biology' a Paradigm Shift?

Is 'Systems Biology' a Paradigm Shift?

Hell no !! We will get to that in a minute.

Possibly our mention of Thomas Kuhn angered Dan Graur so much that he held posthumous trial of Kuhn and found him guilty of perjury. That commentary started blogosphere discussions on who the true ‘paradigm shifters’ in biology were. Was double helix discovery by Watson and Crick a paradigm shift? No, according to Dan Graur.

So the question arises, are there paradigm shifters in biology? There are some, I think, not many. Mendel, Darwin, Kimura, and Hamilton are the ones I can think of. Most progress in biology and especially in molecular biology is a brick-by-brick affair.

Marc Robinson-Rechavi (MRR) followed up with his thoughtful commentary -

How many paradigm shifts in the history of biology?

We do not agree that Einstein was the only paradigm shifter in physics over the last 150 years, but will keep this discussion restricted to biology. MRR argued -

In my opinion, Darwin is the one un-arguable paradigm shift in biology, on par with Newton or Einstein in physics or Lavoisier in chemistry. The questions which could be asked, the frame in which new results are to be understood, were completely changed.

My feeling is that Kimura and Hamilton worked within the Darwinian paradigm, and do not represent true paradigm shifts. They clarified important aspects, true, but they did not change fundamentally the way we look at the study of living organisms. By the way, if you are including these guys, surely Woese belongs in the same list?

For Mendel, I am divided. I would tend to put his work on the same level as Watson & Crick. It was super important work, but we already knew that heritability is important, that offspring look like their parents, and that there must be rules to find. Similarly, for Watson & Crick, we knew that there must be a molecular carrier of heritability.

We tend to agree with Marc Robinson-Rechavi, but also understand where Dan Graur came from. He had to reduce 23,800 potential ‘paradigm shifts’ mentioned over the last decade in biology abstracts to a short set, and getting to 4 is a remarkable achievement.

Eduardo Eyras adds -


Nicolas Le Novre followed up with his commentary -

Where are the paradigm shifts in biology?

It started well, but then sadly went into describing systems biology as a ‘paradigm shift’. Systems biology, which is not different from computational biology and bioinformatics, is carefully marketed pair of buzzwords to attract grant money. Using the definition of ‘science’ as a set of theories to describe natural world, and ‘paradigm shift’ as a major change in existing theories, systems biology does neither. Writing few nonlinear dynamics equations to impress math-ignorant biologists is not even a serious science, let along ‘paradigm shift’.


As an aside, will the claims by the following physicist be a paradigm shift, if proven true? We believe he is lot more genuine than the systems biologists.

Did Josephson Lose His Mind or Was He Ahead of His Time?

Written by M. //