Confessions of a Biological Scientist – Part I: The Limits of Meat

Science has proceeded uninterrupted for hundreds of years now, through its progress we have emerged from ignorance and awakened to the reality of our Universe. But scientific advancement is now retarded by a fundamental problem, the scientists. In the near future something as important as science will no longer be left to imperfect and inefficient biological scientists, but will become be the realm of digital scientists. In this first part of Confessions of a Biological Scientist, I will discuss the limitations of biology, and why science must soon leave us behind.

I am a scientist. I spend my days in a manner that is likely more or less consistent with how you might imagine that a scientist would; researching, devising, performing, and analysing experiments to test new hypothesis about how the world works. 

Notwithstanding the current challenge of obtaining and maintaining funding for scientific projects, being a scientist is a pretty good gig. Science offers a chance to do a job where you can truly embrace your creative side. Scientists also get to travel the world to present data and meet fascinating people. Most importantly for me though, being a scientist lets me do something that I know is making a positive impact on the world.

What has been bugging me lately though, is the question of just how much value I am adding to this equation really. I am not calling into question the value of science itself, that argument is easily dispatched with a look at the magical world which science has revealed. What I am questioning is the value of scientists, or to be more specific, the value of human scientists.

Before delving into the meat of my argument, I must make the obvious disclaimer that currently there is no alternative to employing scientists. If we want to do science, it is absolutely a necessary evil that we must deal with the biological and social inefficiencies of humans in order to take steps towards scientific progress. We have no choice but to keep feeding these meat-scientists for now, but I see a juggernaut on the horizon, a new kind of scientist is coming and it will make me nothing more than a child in a sandbox. 

The profound deficiencies of human science are actually much deeper than they might at first seem; the biological requirements of being human are more than simply a cost of doing science, they are an active deficit against it.

The first limitation of our biological bodies is that we are provided with only a limited set of five senses by which we can absorb data. Even with five senses, we are so reliant on our gelatinous orbs (eyes), that we insist on converting all data into into visual graphs, tables, and pictures. This obligatory photocopying of data into a form amenable to visual digestion is a lossy process, and predisposes our understanding of phenomena which can be understood visually. As someone who spends a lot of time making neat little powerpoint models to communicate new scientific findings, I am very familiar with both the power and the limitations of visual understanding.  

While some scientific phenomena seem to have somehow transcended the visual world (I am thinking specifically of mathematical and physical discussion of higher dimensional space) the limitations of our biological brains are still an ultimate barrier to our understanding of natural phenomena. In order to understand something, we must have some comparable a priori understanding on which to draw.

We grope for an analogy by which we can explain what is happening. Electrons flow like water, proteins fold like origami, and beehives act like a single organism. Ultimately this need to explain new phenomena through pre-exisiting ones limits us to only step-wise advancement in science. We cannot leapfrog over ideas which we do not yet understand. 

Even if we do have the pre-existing understanding to appreciate a phenomenon we are witnessing, our ability to identify the underlying mathematical relationships is highly limited. We are great at seeing a linear trend, and maybe we can pick out the odd logarithmic relationship, but we are hopelessly inept when it comes to seeing the complex algorithms of the world.

In cellular biology, we are particularly guilty of reporting on naturalistic phenomenon, while glossing over the mathematical relationships that underpin the systems we study. We produce an endless supply of scientific reports full of experimental data, hypotheses, and neat little models, but it is the rare exception which contains a mathematical equation.

For an idea of what I am talking about, check out an issue of top level scientific journals like Science or Nature. What proportion would you suppose contains a mathematical equation? Yes there are statistical tests of various relationships, but this is all too often the entirety of mathematical analysis in a paper. When this protein goes down, this other one goes up in a statistically significant manner, but that is usually as far as we go.

Although this might seem harsh criticism of the natural sciences, there are good reasons that there is so little math in biology, and it is certainly something that I myself am guilty of. The problem stems from the fact that biological systems are highly complex and non-linear systems. While biological brains are readily capable of understanding how two or maybe three factors interact, we have no means of understanding how the thousands of factors involved in a single cell are interacting.

I would propose that biological humans will never be able to understand complex biological systems with mathematical precision. It will require a new kind of scientist which can see the complex mathematical relationships and account for the thousands or millions of factors which interact in a given cell, a given body, or a given society. It will require a computer scientist.

Computers will make better scientists because they are not subject to the limits of human biology. To a computer all data is mathematical. There is no need for intermediating steps to convert data into a simplified visual form. Computers can collect data from any number of imaginable sensory devices and perform mathematical analyses directly upon this data.

Computers also have no need to understand why something is as it is. While this is often cited as a weakness of computers, it can also be seen as a positive. A computer could theoretically identify the multi-variate mathematical relationships that rule a complex system with no need to understand why this relationship exists. A computational analysis of a complex system would reveal properties about how things are, not why they are that way.

Aside: In scientific discussions, this type of discussion might break out into a correlation versus causation argument, but I have always felt that causation may be nothing more than a highly statistically significant correlation. We never really know there are no other factors which could be causative in the system. With enough data, I am convinced that an adequately intelligent computer system could identify relevant mathematical relationships which underpin natural systems which are every bit as good and better than what humans have devised.

Simply put, my argument is this: The world is made of math, computers will make better scientists because they are better than us at math. 

John Henry died with a hammer in his hand when he went up against the steam drill, well scientists will soon be up against the steam-scientist and it will either be get out of the way or die with a pipette in your hand. Until now it has never been possible to envision any type of scientist other than a human one. We simply had to settle for suppressing the non-scientific elements of our being and become the best possible scientists we could be. To accomplish this we developed elaborate systems of scientific education, research and publication. In my next post I will delve into the inefficiency of the wider scientific system and why technology represents an imminent threat to the entire house of cards.

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6 thoughts on “Confessions of a Biological Scientist – Part I: The Limits of Meat

  1. Not sure that I agree with your premise, TI. I can appreciate what you’re driving at, but . . . It is the irrational leaps of imagination that frequently drive human advancement. Buggered if I can think of any off the top of my head but it is those unique frailties of humanity – excitement, passion, imagination, intuition and, yes, fear – that strongly define us. Mathematics did not create the system of ones and zeroes that enable computing – even though all those numbers had plenty of opportunity to create a meaningful life for themselves! But it’s good that you make us question reality – and our role in it. Keep it up!

    • Point well taken in regards to the fact that computers can’t really make these leaps of logic which have in the past generated the great advances of human science. I think one example would be the invention on antibiotics. The fact that someone noticing bread mold killing a bacterium led to one of the single greatest medical advancements ever boggles the mind.

      Still, I would say that computers are taking their first few steps towards implementing this type of imperfect and fuzzy sort of logic. Taking IBM’s Watson for example, this system uses a sort of fuzzy logic to try to figure out what the best possible answer is. This type of logic could be used to try connecting previously unconnected ideas, and may one day lead to computers that can actually make wholly new ideas. Add to this the emergence of quantum computing, which by its nature has a sort of imperfect fuzziness to it, and I think we will soon be seeing computers which will be able to truly think like a scientist.

      • Oh, I am a complete addict of (quality) science fiction and I think an extraordinary new ‘universe’ of Artificial Intelligence awaits us. I have little doubt that it will redefine the way we live. The works of Peter F Hamilton and Ian M Banks are seminal in this aspect. So, I guess I have to revise my original response and amend it to: not quite yet but a strong possibility in the future. In the interim, let’s hope those meatsack scientists solve a lot more of humanity’s travails while we wait! Have a ripper day!.

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