Is biology hard?

PZ Myers at Pharyngula just generated an interesting thread, “we don’t have physics envy, but we still have to deal with physics snobbery,” about whether biology is regarded as a lesser discipline, compared with “harder” sciences like physics. PZ references this post at Biology in Science Fiction, which in turn references this excellent post at Northstate Science.

It’s quite true that non-biologists seem to feel qualified to hold forth on topics such as alien life, evolution, and medicine. . .why? Is biology really so much easier than other sciences, so you don’t even need a formal education in it? (Why the heck was I studying for all those years?)

I’m conflicted about this issue. If there is a hierarchy of sciences, I admit, I do think physics has an edge – simply because it’s more fundamental. Physics squeezes in closer to the cogs and cam-shafts of universal truth than biology can, which gives me a knee-jerk fascination with/admiration for physics (mdvlst is not allowed to comment on this issue).

But is biology “easier,” a soft science, teetering on some slippery slope to the – gasp – humanities? Hardly! The common idea that biology is mere “memorization of facts and terms” is complete baloney. No science consists solely of memorization. In biology, you do have to memorize lists of terms and structures and genes in order to proceed with hypothesis testing, because you’re dealing with complex, unique systems – a particular eukaryotic cell replete with proteins and organelles, an ecosystem with constituent organisms, etc. You have to know a sufficient number of parts before you can build meaningful predictions about the system. But such “naming of parts” does not make you a biologist.

Further, even “naming of parts” goes a lot deeper than people realize. Since I taught anatomy – a class almost entirely about naming parts – I’ve encountered many non-biologists claiming to “know” anatomy already, on the strength of a high school course. (They do not similarly claim to “know” physics.) Yet I’m certain these people would fail my easiest anatomy exams – they claim to know all the bones of the human body, but have no idea where or what the ethmoid or sphenoid are. They couldn’t begin to draw the circulatory system, or point out the cells on a slide of cartilage.

That’s ok – I didn’t know every single bone either; I learned them in order to teach them. But why do people so readily assume there’s no more to anatomy than they dimly remember? Why do they think biology is shallow and easy? Why do physics students arrive for the first day of class with paralyzed looks of dread, when my biology students arrive cocky and contemptuous, then grow astonished and resentful when biology turns out to be hard?

I realized way back in college that as a biologist I would never be considered a “real” scientist by many of my fellows. One friend made a point of reminding me frequently that chemistry was much more rigorous than biology – just in case I forgot my place in the hard science/soft science caste system. Whatever; I found biology more interesting and exciting than chemistry. Plus, biology is squishy!

But it’s not just about people disrespecting my field, or inventing biologically implausible alien races, or the regrettable case of Scully from The X-Files doing a Southern blot in an impossibly short time with an unamplified sample to prove she had alien DNA, or the aliens had human DNA, or whatever that storyline was. Unfortunately, the idea that biology isn’t an especially rigorous science reinforces all sorts of problems – from school boards that give equal weight to intelligent design and evolution, to uninformed decisions about health care (trust me, college students know laughably little about conception and contraception), to policies about scientific research (on stem cells, for example) made on unscientific, partisan grounds.

Why is biology so vulnerable to disrespect? Do people think “life” is not a sufficiently scientific concept, and thus the “study of life” is a fuzzy sort of science? Is it familiarity breeding contempt – we’ve all got bodies, after all? (We’re all made of atoms, but that doesn’t mean people think they understand atomic theory). Is it some sort of inborn affinity for macroscopic plants and animals, but not for the invisibly small, which gives people a proprietary sense of familiarity with “biology”? I just don’t get it.

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11 Responses to Is biology hard?

  1. Pierre Carlès says:

    “Is it some sort of inborn affinity for macroscopic plants and animals, but not for the invisibly small, which gives people a proprietary sense of familiarity with “biology”?”

    I am sure that’s the reason, definitely.
    Think about cosmology: every single person seems to have her own view on the structure of the universe.

    I think this particular place of biology is purely an anthropocentric phenomenon. Besides, biology relies much less on obscure mathematical language as physics, which make people THINK they can speak equal with specialists. It is somehow the same with sociology, after all. How many debates have we seen where journalists, after a 2-days search, quarrel with sociologists over a complex social issue ?

    Well … I guess you will have to leave with this unfair treatment. But if that can be of any support for you, remember that us physicists are looked down upon by pure mathematicians ! :lol:

    Dear … it’s a strange world.

  2. Dan Wright says:

    “If there is a hierarchy of sciences, I admit, I do think physics has an edge – simply because it’s more fundamental. Physics squeezes in closer to the cogs and cam-shafts of universal truth than biology can, which gives me a knee-jerk fascination with/admiration for physics”

    I can completely understand where you come from with this — I am also fascinated with physics, for similar reasons — but I think it’s really important to remember that the “hierarchy of the sciences” idea is cultural ephemera, and nothing more. Physics is no more or less fundamental the biology! All the sciences are ways of approaching understanding fundamental reality.

    Physics addresses essentially two scales: the very small, and the very large. Biology is more concerned with things relevant to human scales and human interest, which (I think) is why everyone feels qualified to have an opinion. They feel they can relate to biology, while physics feels intimidating and deeply weird: the subjects it addresses have no intuitive relation to everyday life.

    Biology can — or at least should — address questions that are just a deeply fundamental as physics, though. Biological systems are the most exquisite expressions of complex emergent dynamics in the universe, and how biology (the natural object, not the science) came to be is at least as important a question as anything addressed in the other sciences.

    (BTW, I’ve been following the blog for a while and really enjoy it. thanks!)

  3. cicada says:


    “Think about cosmology: every single person seems to have her own view on the structure of the universe.”

    I actually have no view on cosmology at all. I have no idea how the universe began and I don’t even really find the question that interesting. But it tickles me to death that you used the feminine pronoun (her own view). You rock.

    As for mathematicians – they don’t count, because they’re not scientists. Their world is too clean to be science. Physicists can do advanced math, AND blow things up. Much, much cooler.

    And I choose to ignore the part where you may have compared biology to a social science. ;)

    Dan – thanks for the compliment! You make an excellent point about the meaning of “fundamental.” Certainly the rules governing the operations of complex living systems are fundamental principles of the universe. I shouldn’t imply otherwise.

    I don’t know though, biology feels unsurpassably wierd to me. Curled-up dimensions are admittedly bizarre, but I can accept that the dimensions I see aren’t reality. No big deal. On the other hand, that the “I” doing the seeing is a loosely glued-together collection of invisibly small cells, propelled by emergent illusions of “mind” and “self”, freaks the bejabers out of me. (I mean, “me!”)

  4. Pierre Carlès says:

    He he … lot of things in your answer, Jess. :D

    Okay, Dan first:
    Although I fully agree with your conclusion, there is one small thing I would like to correct: physics is not just about small and large systems. In-between lies the realm of … macroscopic physics (as you’d guess), and it is as much a lively subject as any other. In fact, it is precisely the subject which has the strongest connections to biology (think of rheology, fluid and solid mechanics, suspensions dynamics, dynamic and chaotic systems, …).

    Jess, I too like physics because you CAN do very advanced maths AND blow up things. :D That is the very definition that made me jump into that field when I decided which job I would do.

    As for social science … do not take the indirect comparison wrong: I have the highest respect for social sciences, specifically for sociology and history. You would be surprised at how much fundamental concepts and modeling is required in both these fields. Only, they are good examples (in my views) of sciences that DO require a strong theoretical background, but that any layperson feels she (see ? ;)) can have an opinion about.

  5. Biology is easy because God had a good plan. ;)

    I kid, I kid.

  6. Pingback: » My physics envy: derailed by pesky exponents

  7. matt says:

    As a physics major in college who is now training to be a doctor/biological scientist, I’ve spent some time on both “sides of the fence.” First, I have quite a bit of respect for good biologists. Among other things, they have a knack — perhaps more than any other group — for coming up with rather ingenious experiments to test hypothesis in a manner that embodies the scientific method at its most elegant and rigorous.

    That said, let me say why I sometimes find myself cursing biology as meaningless laundry list of facts to memorize and regurgitate. In my physics classes, we were taught *concepts*, and asked to understand and apply them — we were asked to *think*. We were not given tedious multiple choice exams full of answer choices that were meant to be confusing, and which you could get wrong even if you understood the material (and alternatively, that you could answer if you had the book in front of you, even if you never took the course). While as you say, you cannot think without some knowledge of a core set of facts, the way biology is taught (at least in my experience) rarely encourages people to think conceptually. Rather, details are usually emphasized at the expense of concepts, pathways to memorize are dumped on students without much discussion of what the steps are actually accomplishing. They are made to struggle with memorization rather than with understanding complex ideas.

    Take anatomy, for example. One could teach it simply by naming all of the parts of the body, making students memorize all of the thousands of names, structures, and relative orientations, and then pointing to each part and asking students to name it: Boring, irrelevant, and difficult only due to the massive amount of memorization (not to mention artificial — in the real world, one is able to consult books, and very few people practice modern science on the proverbial “desert island”). On the other hand, one could include elements of physiology and function relating to the structures, and ask students, rather than playing the “name game”, to apply these ideas. This rarely happens (or at least does not happen enough). When students encountering biology find that their teachers ask them only to recite the lecture notes back to them, it is easy to (incorrectly) conclude that that’s all there is to the subject. It makes it seem like a 5 year old could do it, if not for all the memorization. What is worse, such an approach often attracts people (both students and teachers) to the subject who are predisposed to doing “science by laundry list”, so that in some cases, the negative conclusions are actually well founded.

    Does that mean that biology is, as a discipline, tedious, boring, or completely devoid of profound and difficult concepts and problems? Of course not — but the way it is often presented by biologists themselves, you might think so. I have to admit that I held approximations of that attitude until recently, and it was only after learning quite a bit of biology, and despite the way the material was presented, that I changed my mind. On the other hand, I think even the students struggling most in my high school physics class had some appreciation for the conceptual difficulty of many ideas in physics.

    Just my $0.02 :)

  8. Sherman says:

    I am a senior, i mean super senior in biology. I have struggled all through my major and pre major classes. 2 molecular basic biology classes, 2 general chemistry, 2 physics, 2 calculas, 2 organic chemistry, 2 biochemistry, 1 genetics, 1 ecology. Phone book size of research papers, I spent more time in Lab then at home. I do what is required and I do study but I still struggle.
    Someone people actually do well , but rare.. most of my classmates struggle like me or does a little better than I do. Over all … I regret doing it ..
    I just can’t wait to graduate because Ive been in school for so long, its depressing !!!

  9. Heather says:

    I love this blog! As a biology student myself, and one-day, a biology teacher, I understand what you mean when you say that other scientists seem to sneer at our field. It really hit home for me one day when a history professor told me that I was studying a “soft science.” I felt indignant–biology isn’t easy. It’s complex, because it’s dealing with the most complex study of all–life.
    And I wouldn’t change majors for the world.

  10. Lola says:

    I’m majoring in Chemistry and am thinking of dropping Biology simple because it’s too hard for me. I can’t seem to sit down and memorize a bunch of terms and structures, it’s just not me as a person.
    Sometimes people look at my major in awe, but I find Biology majors amazing. They hold all that info. in the heads and keep it. Kudos to them.

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