What can we learn from Martians

Well, probably a lot. If they exist. What does exist for sure, though, is the challenge to understand in detail how the human heart works. And, similar to the above scenario, among the many different ways to advance this venture, there are at least two main directions: the top-down and the bottom-up route. Accordingly, bio-scientists tend to get pigeonholed into two schools of thought.

'Reductionism' is the direction that unites those guys who try to dissemble the parts of a biological system, and put them under a microscope (a laser-scanning quantum-leaping one, of course) to see the sparks of imagination hidden in the least of the components. The under-the-bonnet view, to stay with the Martian's analogy.

'Integrationism', on the other hand, unites those who pride themselves for their holistic view of the complete system, without necessarily being burdened by a detailed understanding of structure and function of the minute components that make it work. The up-in-the-air perspective.

Reductionists might say that the division between the two schools of thought simply runs along the split between 'thorough' and 'not-so-thorough'. Integrationists would probably claim that the divide is nearer the categories 'geeky' and 'not-so-geeky'.

The two contrasting views were expressed at a higher level of sophistication during a recent Novartis Foundation meeting on The limits of reductionism in biology by Professor Lewis Wolpert and Professor Gabriel A. Dover, who said (respectively): '. . . there is no good science that doesn't have a major element of reductionism in it . . .', and '. . . we have imagined we have explained something merely by describing its parts, but all we have done is create an excuse for not to think about it . . .' (Bock & Goode 1998).

This leaves us with the question of whether or not the two directions are irreconcilable.

We would like to think that the answer is a clear NO. The logic of life will neither be recognised without precise understanding of the manifold of components that give rise to biological function, nor without a clear conception of the dynamic interactions between individual components. Likewise, the logic of life lies exclusively neither in the most incredible detail, nor in the most sweeping synopsis.

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