From Massimo Pigliucci at Footnotes to Plato:
Theoretical biology’ is a surprisingly heterogeneous field, partly because it encompasses ‘‘doing theory’’ across disciplines as diverse as molecular biology, systematics, ecology, and evolutionary biology. Moreover, it is done in a stunning variety of different ways, using anything from formal analytical models to computer simulations, from graphic representations to verbal arguments. A few years ago I co-organized a workshop on this topic at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for theoretical biology in Vienna, and then published an edited volume of the journal Biological Theory collecting all contributions.
It certainly sounds as though Pigliucci talking about the shot heard round the world, The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry (2009), though he does not go to any trouble to say so. He asks, are there laws in biology, as in physics?
If not laws, are there general theories in biology? Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said that ‘‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’’ Adding that to Richard Dawkins’ quest for ‘‘universal Darwinism’’ and to Daniel Dennett’s contention that Darwinism is a ‘‘universal acid’’ of sorts that cuts across disciplines, extending the idea of Darwinian evolution well beyond biology itself, one would think that biologists have settled on their version of a theory of everything long ago. One would be surprised. A perusal of the recent literature shows quite a bit of activity in this department, again largely on the side of ecologists. I will briefly comment on one such attempts, referring the interested reader to two more case studies discussed in the paper. More.
Pigliucci seems to be dancing around the main point: To the extent that biology is a form of history (of life on this planet), it simply cannot be what mathematics or physics are. Unless, of course, we believe that everything is fated or fixed, but quantum mechanics would suggest that that’s impossible. In that case, laws of biology must end up being like laws of history: Everybody dies; everything runs down in the long run, new stuff starts up all the time… True, but where does it get us?
See also: Massimo Pigliucci: A burden of proof in science that just does not make sense