Steven Wiley on the reductionism of biologists

"Biological systems are simply too complex, and we will end up knowing a lot about trees and being clueless about the forest."

- Steven Wiley, writing in The Scientist

Wiley, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Biomolecular Systems Initiative in Richland, Washington, seems worried about the limited imagination of biologists. As case in point, he wonders why there are more than ten thousand papers about the epidermal growth factor receptor, but only about 150 about the presumably equally interesting insulin-like growth factor receptor. Equally, he wonders why the grant proposals he reviews all tend to be clustered around a limited range of tired old topics.

The answer, he thinks, to why biological knowledge "is concentrated in a few areas separated by large swaths of ignorance" is down to several factors, including the tendency of famous labs and departments to churn out researchers who end up specializing in their own limited areas, and the limitations imposed by technology, which means that people end up studying what is easy to study. But perhaps, he says, the reductionist tendencies of biologists also play a role: the imperative to uncover every last detail about one topic instead of stepping back and investigating the larger picture. According to Wiley, this tendency is reinforced by the peer reviewers of scientific manuscripts when they demand "more details, extra experiments, and clarification of some arcane mechanism that was irrelevant".

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