Is biology easier than physics?


Jason Collins


July 5, 2012

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 followingSteven 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?