The mechanics of morphogenesis is something European scientists, in particular, seem to find intriguing. However, physical biology is an approach many classical biologists in America have had a difficult time in the past understanding as well as accepting, as evidenced by vociferous attacks in the blogosphere on scientists working in that area. Fortunately, this is changing with America’s new generation of scientists, with project support from organizations like the Simons Foundation, and with publicly funded research in Europe that continues to explore along those lines.
French scientists, in particular, have been central to the inquiry into the mechanics of shape in developmental biology. An inspiring example is the current work of Jean-Léon Maître, who is leading a team at Institut Curie in Paris looking at how the mammalian embryo is built.
Much that happens to embryos is not usefully seen as natural selection acting on random genetic mutation but as applied physics and chemistry. Yes, we are talking about structuralism, the much-maligned approach to evolution that sees it as critically dependent on physics and chemistry, not accidentally so (as in random evolution).
Suzan Mazur: A fair number of classical biologists in the US don’t understand this idea of physical forces and have in the past ridiculed and rejected this approach. Regardless, the science now seems to be moving center stage. It’s interesting.
Jean-Léon Maître: There is a huge contribution that biophysics or physical biology can make to biology. Biology is becoming more and more quantitative and our field is quantitative by nature, so it is really helping to push quantitative measurement into biology in general.
A dose of biophysics rids us of any number of Darwinian just-so stories. That is, “It happens this way because of these specific laws of force” strkes a different note from “It evolved this way because natural selection somehow favored it [insert just-so story here].”
Suzan Mazur: And why do you think these cyclic contractile events have been conserved in evolution?
Jean-Léon Maître: This short answer is, I have no idea. What the field is leaning towards is that this constraint on the time scale of contraction is some kind of structural constraint. The way the actin cytoskeleton and myosin forces are organized at the molecular level kind of defines the time scale. More.
Some ID types have been studying biophysics for years, for a more complete picture of the history of life.
See also:Is Nature now giving space to structuralism?
Denton, as his book Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis reveals, is a structuralist. He thinks that many puzzles of evolution will turn out to relate to as yet unidentified laws of physics and chemistry.
Of course, if one insists, with Stephen Jay Gould, that evolution is random, any such quest is in vain.
Denton himself certainly learned what can happen to those who search for such laws.
See also: Convergent evolution: “Emerging view” that evolution is predictable?
Vid of early mouse embryo reacting to the absence of calcium, by Maitre