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Microbiology needs more math to help sort out the concept of “species”? Oh but wait…

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From Mikhail Tikhonov at The Scientist:

More profoundly, microbial ecosystems are a strange world where many familiar concepts start to break down, including “species,” “fitness,” and maybe even “organism.” In our everyday experience, we are rarely in doubt whether a given creature is a fox or a rabbit. Further, it seems very easy to delineate where an “individual” ends, and its “environment” begins. Our ability to do so is often taken for granted, and underlies how we think about both ecology and evolution. Whether these assumptions remain adequate for microbes is, however, increasingly doubtful.

The issue of microbial species being ill-defined is a hot topic in the biological literature. In a recent paper in Physical Review E, I try to bring it to the attention of the physics community, proposing that ideas from condensed matter and statistical physics could help contribute to this discussion. The larger picture, however, is that microbial ecology is at a stage where we might have to reevaluate some of our most fundamental assumptions. When unsure if we can trust our common sense, the only solid pillars we have left are data and mathematics, and we need both. More.

It’s good that someone has noticed that the concept of species probably doesn’t make much sense at all among life forms that can use horizontal gene transfer on a regular basis.

But wouldn’t a mathematical approach go against the drift of the culture? johnnyb defended teaching algebra here. But others say algebra is racist. Just like objectivity is sexist. And so forth.

Maybe we need to decide first whether science still needs tools, rather than grievances. After that, the rest is method, plodding, logistics, and plodding.

See also: Horizontal gene transfer: Sorry, Darwin, it’s not your evolution any more

Why teach algebra? Part II

and

Objectivity is sexist.

4 Replies to “Microbiology needs more math to help sort out the concept of “species”? Oh but wait…

  1. 1
    Mung says:

    It doesn’t matter news. You can still create a phylogeny, even if it may not be correct. Therefore, evolution is true.

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    Each microbial “species” is “fit” for it’s own specific “niche.” Therefore, evolution is true.

  3. 3
    rvb8 says:

    One day, one day, there will be a, ‘positive’ ID story.

    One day.

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    From Darwin on, the story of evolution is one of a negative claim, why ID is NOT TRUE.

    One day, one day, there will be a ‘positive’ evolution story.

    One day.

    Or not.

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