This View of Life

What’s the biggest idea in science that’s not mentioned in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology? Most of the grand principles of physics appear: quantum mechanics, special relativity, the second law of thermodynamics. The foundations of chemistry are included, such as atomic theory and radioactive decay. Many basic concepts from mathematics are discussed, like calculus and chaos theory. Fundamentals of biology are also present, like the structure of DNA.

In my opinion, the biggest scientific idea never mentioned in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, not even once, is evolution. As Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” So why is evolution absent from IPMB?

A simple, if not altogether satisfactory, answer is that no single book can cover everything. As Russ Hobbie and I write in the preface to IPMB, “This book has become long enough.”

At a deeper level, however, physicists focus on principles that are common to all organisms; which unify our view of life. Evolutionary biologists, on the other hand, delight in explaining how diverse organisms come about through the quirks and accidents of history. Russ and I come from physics, and emphasize unity over diversity.

Ever Since Darwin, by Stephen Jay Gould, superimposed on Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.
Ever Since Darwin,
by Stephen Jay Gould.

Suppose you want to learn more about evolution; how would you do it? I suggest reading books by Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), and in particular his collections of essays. I read these years ago and loved them, both for the insights into evolution and for the beauty of the writing. In the prologue of Gould’s first collection-Ever Since Darwin-he says

These essays, written from 1974–1977, originally appeared in my monthly column for Natural History Magazine, entitled “This View of Life.” They range broadly from planetary and geological to social and political history, but they are united (in my mind at least) by the common thread of evolutionary theory-Darwin’s version. I am a tradesman, not a polymath; what I know of planets and politics lies at their intersection with biological evolution.

Is evolution truly missing from Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology? Although it’s not discussed explicitly, ideas about how physics constrains evolution are implicit. For instance, one homework problem in Chapter 4 instructs the student to “estimate how large a cell …can be before it is limited by oxygen transport.” Doesn’t this problem really analyze how diffusion impacts natural selection? Another problem in Chapter 3 asks “ could a fish be warm blooded and still breathe water [through gills]?” Isn’t this really asking why mammals such as dolphins and whales, which have evolved to live in the water, must nevertheless come to the surface to breathe air? Indeed, many ideas analyzed in IPMB are relevant to evolution.

In Ever Since Darwin, Gould dedicates an essay (Chapter 21, “Size and Shape”) to scaling. Russ and I discuss scaling in Chapter 1 of IPMB. Gould explains that

Animals are physical objects. They are shaped to their advantage by natural selection. Consequently, they must assume forms best adapted to their size. The relative strength of many fundamental forces (gravity, for example) varies with size in a regular way, and animals respond by systematically altering their shapes.

The Panda’s Thumb, by Stephen Jay Gould, superimposed on Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.
The Panda’s Thumb,
by Stephen Jay Gould.

Gould returns to the topic of scaling in an essay on “Our Allotted Lifetimes,” Chapter 29 in his collection titled The Panda’s Thumb. This chapter contains mathematical expressions (rare in Gould’s essays but common in IPMB) analyzing how breathing rate, heart rate and lifetime scale with size. In his next essay (Chapter 30, “Natural Attraction: Bacteria, the Birds and the Bees”), Gould addresses another topic covered in IPMB: magnetotactic bacteria. He writes

In the standard examples of nature’s beauty-the cheetah running, the gazelle escaping, the eagle soaring, the tuna coursing, and even the snake slithering or the inchworm inching-what we perceive as graceful form also represents an excellent solution to a problem in physics. When we wish to illustrate the concept of adaptation in evolutionary biology, we often try to show that organisms “know” physics-that they have evolved remarkably efficient machines for eating and moving.

Gould knew one of my heroes, Isaac Asimov. In his essay on magnetotactic bacteria, Gould describes how he and Asimov discussed topics similar to those in Edward Purcell’s article “ Life at Low Reynolds Number” cited in IPMB.

The world of a bacterium is so unlike our own that we must abandon all our certainties about the way things are and start from scratch. Next time you see Fantastic Voyage… ponder how the miniaturized adventurers would really fare as microscopic objects within a human body… As Isaac Asimov pointed out to me, their ship could not run on its propeller, since blood is too viscous at such a scale. It should have, he said, a flagellum-like a bacterium.

I’m fond of essays, which often provide more insight than journal articles and textbooks. Gould’s 300 essays appeared in every issue of Natural History between 1974 and 2001; he never missed a month. Asimov also had a monthly essay in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and his streak lasted over thirty years, from 1959 to 1992. My twelve-year streak in this blog seems puny compared to these ironmen. Had Gould and Asimov been born a half century later, I wonder if they’d be bloggers?

Gould ends his prologue to The Panda’s Thumb by quoting The Origin of Species, written by his hero Charles Darwin. There in the final paragraph of this landmark book we find a juxtaposition of physics and biology.

Charles Darwin chose to close his great book with a striking comparison that expresses this richness. He contrasted the simpler system of planetary motion, and its result of endless, static cycling, with the complexity of life and its wondrous and unpredictable change through the ages:

There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Listen to Stephen Jay Gould talk about evolution.

National Public Radio remembers Stephen Jay Gould (May 22, 2002).

Originally published at