Bucking the Zeitgeist

What happens when biologists and a physicist try to create a grand unifying theory of biology?

Richard Gallagher
Feb 28, 2007

Today's biology is a frenzy of convergence. Driven by huge datasets and the tools to analyze them, comparative genomics and systems biology are being used to define the common basis of life and the dazzling variations on its central theme. Given the spirit of the times, any attempt to advance a grand unifying theory of biology would get a reasonable hearing today.

Rewind 10 years to 1997, however, and the zeitgeist of biology was quite different. Reductionism was king. Excellence in molecular biology was a major driver, and research was more noticeably compartmentalized, with the focus on providing a full description of the discrete pieces of the puzzle of life. For example, Science magazine's "Breakthrough of the Year" in the mid-90s featured p53, DNA repair and cloning. How would a theory that dared to span the breadth of biology be received in such a reductive setting?

That question was tested...


1. G.B. West, J.H. Brown, B.J. Enquist, "A general model for the origin of allometric scaling laws in biology," Science, 276:122-6, 1997. 2. D. Robinson, "Biology's big idea," Nature, 444:272, 2006. 3. G.B. West, "Innovation and growth: Size matters," Harvard Bus Rev, Feb 2007.