Is biology easier than physics?

Steve Hsu has pointed out an interesting old interview with Noam Chomsky. Hsu highlights Chomsky’s views on the limits of human intelligence.

It was possible in the late nineteenth century for an intelligent person of much leisure and wealth to be about as much at home as he wanted to be in the arts and sciences. But forty years later that goal had become hopeless. …

I think it has happened in physics and mathematics, for example. There’s this idea, which goes back to the French mathematicians known collectively as Bourbaki, that the development of mathematics was originally the exploration of everyday intuitions of space and number. That is probably somewhat true through the end of the nineteenth century. But I don’t think it’s true now. As for physics, in talking to students at MIT, I notice that many of the very brightest ones, who would have gone into physics twenty years ago, are now going into biology. I think part of the reason for this shift is that there are discoveries to be made in biology that are within the range of an intelligent human being. This may not be true in other areas.

While I am not convinced that Chomsky’s prediction of bright students going into biology played out (didn’t they all go into finance?), it is an interesting question. Is biology inherently more accessible?

Contrast the current group selection debate, such as that being played out at The Edge following Steven Pinker’s essay critiquing group selection, with the discussion of the discovery of the Higgs boson. The group selection debate has a range of participants from academic biologists to popular science writers to bloggers. It takes little investment to have an opinion. In contrast, for all but a few physicists, we are passive receivers of information about the Higgs boson.

However, the group selection debate is not necessarily a perfect example of an easily accessible topic. Reading through the responses to Pinker’s essay, it is clear that many of the responders do not have a common understanding of what group selection is. When the statement is made that the inclusive fitness and multi-level selection approaches can be shown to be mathematically equivalent representations, most people do not understand how or why that might be the case. And if we take one of the triggers of the recent escalation in debate, Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson’s Nature paper attacking kin selection, the majority of the debate participants do not fully understand the mathematics that underpins it, including one of the paper’s authors himself. While physics may have progressed to a level such that it is less accessible than biology, some of the accessibility of biology is illusory.

As an aside, how quickly would a debate about the Higgs boson would emerge in the blogosphere if its existence had a bearing on politics and whether government should be large or small?


  1. Biology is way more accesible, and I’m someone who might plausibly be considered within the realm of ‘biologist instead of physicist’ (I once did solar physics research; I have a math masters and was interested in science, but physics was bor-ing). A lot of physics is very conceptual, and what experimental stuff there is isn’t always the most exciting. What, you tell your friends you’re trying to make better magnets? I’m in neurobiology and I want to understand _learning_, _memory_. Which sounds more accesible?

    At my university we’ve seen a swing in admissions in the five years that I’ve been here. We have a computational-specialization part of the program for people with physics and math background who want to start doing biology. When I first got here, about the only people with good quantitative skills were the ones doing that specialization. Now, we have students with the physics and EE background which previously would have gone into the specialization who instead are just part of the general program. I think _this_ is the stream of people who would otherwise make up the base of physics programs that are instead opting for biology. Because, honestly, which is more interesting?

    1. There is not much decent introductory material out there on the group selection math, and I know that teaching myself has largely been a process of collating a mountain of resources rather than having a couple of seminal works show me the way. As a starting point, Wilsons 1975 and 1977 papers (as referred to in my last post) are as good a starting point as any. Then perhaps Queller’s paper on how multilevel selection and inclusive fitness are mathematically equivalent – although by this point there is a need for some understanding of the Price equation. Nowak et al’s paper doesn’t really help in this area, as its not group selection (but as it is an attack on kin selection, inevitably made its way into the group selection math).

      1. McElreath and Boyd’s Mathematical Models of Social Evolution, Chapter 6 is pretty good (though you need earlier chapters).

        Also Rice’s Evolutionary Theory, Chapters 6, 9 and 10.

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