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Academically Correct Biological Science

Steven Vogel

The New Reductionism

Molecular explanation as a dominant paradigm accords well with our justified respect for reductionist explanations in science. In part, it rests on the specific and notable successes of molecular biology itself. But its dominance of present-day biology also comes simply from the availability of support for it. In particular, the National Institutes of Health has become the largest source of funding for scientific activities at many universities, and the NIH seems especially fond of the chemo-reductionist paradigm.

The ostensibly rapid progress of molecular biology deserves a more skeptical examination than it usually gets. On a conceptual level, which is what ought to matter most for a university, it has yielded great explanatory richness—over the past three decades perhaps matching that of evolutionary biology. Molecular biology has even contributed to the great contemporary renaissance of the latter. But the unprecedented concentration of personal and material resources may have produced a peculiar paradox. The field may now be progressing at a rate as slow as that of any area of science ever actively pursued—if we consider conceptual progress relative to the number of active investigators. The implications are serious, whether for a person looking for an area where there's a good chance of making a major contribution or—of especial relevance here—for a university intent on contributing to science.

The reductionist appeal of molecular biology deserves scrutiny as well. For one thing, molecular explanations aren't the only useful kind of reduction—solutions to many biological problems have turned on mathematical models, Newtonian physics, systems analysis and so forth. Furthermore, reduction is only one manifestation of the abstraction and generalization that characterizes science.

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