Just to start, I want to put down some of the ideas I’ve had on this subject.
One of the main and interesting obstacles in science is putting things into categories. Physics and chemistry have done this more clearly than Biology, with formulas and basic units that can be fit together in various combinations, not to mention that ingenious beauty of the periodic table. In Biology, the one basic rule is that there are always exceptions to the rule! Trying to lump organisms together in logical groupings is an ongoing process. Evolution is being used in this case but there are of course limitations to our knowledge of what came before what, and even then, it is a gradual process of adaptation, small changes over time. And speciation itself, even what makes up one species versus another – let alone getting into individuals and behavior – is arguably very questionable.
What if there could be a kind of periodic table for Biology? In a way, there already is – for one thing, the periodic table is used in Biology, because of course Chemistry is part of Biology. And, at a different level, evolution is providing that kind of guidance for the basis of biological approaches. However, two fascinating aspects of the periodic table are 1) it is non-linear and 2) it is predictive. In this case I don’t mean non-linear necessarily in the mathematics sense, but in the visual sense. As opposed to a timeline or an equation, the table can be read left to right up and down, around in circles, in groups – the information can be processed and useful in many directions. Similar elements are grouped near each other, and their order is based on distinct physical properties. This brings me to the aspect number 2, that of being predictive. Before an element is even discovered, its existence and even properties can be predicted, based on its associations and similarities to the other elements, in short its position in the table. Evolution provides a bit of this predictive ability, in that the basic processes involved, plus research, provide bits of information that can be pieced together logically. For instance, perhaps we know of the existence of one organism, and thousands of years later, another organism that is similar, we can fill in the blank that perhaps there is a missing link and even imagine what that could be like. The processes that drive adapation – competition, mating, etc – can also be used predictively: the example of the flower with a very long stem, and the hypothesis that there must be a pollinator with an equally long apparatus for pollinating it (which, of course, turned out to be the case). So in some ways, Evolution serves as a structuring entity in the field of Biology.
And yet, Biology still is a bit too ‘messy.’ The astonishing harmony and presentation of the principles in physics and chemistry don’t seem to be matched in Biology. This is where I think fractals come in. Already, fractals are being used in various aspects of biology. Repeated patterns at different scales are recognized in the forms of organisms (leaves, conch shells), in their environments (coastlines, complex habitats), and in aspects of their behavior and life history (non-linearity, aggregations, ecology, statistics, etc). Fractals, which are proving increasingly useful in explaining very complex and not-necessarily-intuitive aspects of Biology could perhaps serve in creating an overall framework for the basic working principles of Biology. At the most fundamental level, fractals are repeating patterns at bigger and smaller scales. This is the basic pattern we see in Biology – the shape of non-linear multiscale forces structuring the organisms and interactions that we are trying to describe and understand. The interactions at one level are part of interactions at another level. So, maybe there is a basic pattern that could perform the function of the periodic table, a basic pattern that repeats bigger and smaller from molecular biology to global ecosystem dynamics. Maybe several patterns, or a formula that describes the pattern of the patterns. Perhaps there is a pattern of the fractal dimensions (a type of complexity measure) of different scales or aspects of Biology.
Well, this is all well and pie in the sky, but so what? Isn’t that what we are all basically trying to do, get to the root of our various research interests? Yes. And to do that, to find these patterns, we need to do some focused research and exchanges of information. Between the competitive air within fields and the lack of communication between fields, the key to the patterns is being hidden. To find an organizing and predictive structure, the patterns will need to be sought at the different scales at which they operate. And most likely, with other fields as well. Biology is a fascinatingly complex field with a clear focus – life science – and yet so many other aspects influence and are influenced by it. The patterns may already be visible in other fields, and could be applied directly to Biology. For instance – waves. With the increasing interest in string theory, and vibrations, and the recurring evidence of cycles and oscillations as basic fundamental patterns in Biology, the structure and function of waves could be a clue or a basis to how a fractal model could be developed.
The potential development of this model, this categorization system, what have you, is by no means a suggestion that the mystery of biology will be resolved or anything like that. The more we learn through science, the more we realize we don’t understand. The periodic table answers some questions, but raises more. What I am talking about is a basic underlying system, a unifying system, a place to start, a way to focus and inspire new research and share findings. What do you think?