I was recently reviewing an opening chapter for a cell biology text and came across one of my pet peeves in scientific epistemology. The authors make reasonable distinctions between theories, hypotheses, and models, and fall only a little short on laws. However, the real rub is that they then take well established biological observations and call them theories wherein they are really laws of nature. So, I came up with the fundamental laws of biology, which I have pushed on students for years (though not always articulated as the 4 laws of bioloy. It might be worth a HUNSTEM post, with lengthier rationalization than I provide here.
The Fundamental Laws of Biology:
First Law: All phenomena of life are consistent with the laws of chemistry and physics. This almost seems trivial since vitalism is long dead (except in its latest reincarnation as Intelligent Design). However, modern biology grapples with complex systems-level phenomena with surprising emergent properties. Restatement of this observation is important in light of life’s complexities. Moreover, it is important as a reminder to those facing modern creationism in the form of Intelligent Design to recognize that biology is subject to mechanistic explanations consistent with our most reliable observations in chemistry and physics.
Second Law: The cell is the fundamental unit of life (so-called Cell Theory). This is where my pet peeve began when I first started teaching biology as a TA in 1978. How can this statement be a theory??? It is one of biology’s defining observations. It is ridiculous to call it a theory. All scientific theories have boundary conditions wherein its power of explanation is suspect or simply inapplicable. This statement has none, and don’t get me started on the virus as life crap.
Third Law: Life is continuous across generations. Another fundamental observation without which the fourth law would not make any sense. Of course, this law is in some ways the weakest of the four since it is restricted to extant life (excluding the life we will soon create in a test tube). Stephen Hawking considers the First Law of Thermodynamics the weakest of those three laws since he sees the universe as a bit leaky, so I think biology can afford one “weak” law of a similar vein.
Fourth Law: Life evolves - populations of organisms change genetically and irreversibly through time. The observation of biological evolution is clearly universal. This law is the most profound and far-reaching of the four laws in the same way that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is the most profound and far-reaching of those three. It’s also a great way of saying humans did not evolve from an amoeba or monkey. Only the mechanisms of evolution are still theories since they are all bounded by some caveats be we be considering the Theory of Natural Selection or the Theory of Neutral Selection at the molecular level.
If our kids are shown the universality of these observations throughout their scientific education, then these scientific laws will become part of their fundamental understanding of life as witnessed by biology. Anyway, I would be happy to develop these further for teachers and whomever, if you think this kind of discussion is included HUNSTEM’s mission.
Chair, Natural Science Department