The progressive triumph of physiology over molecular biology
8 August 2014

Twenty years ago, the Nobel Prize winner and brilliantly successful drug-discoverer Sir James Black made what seemed like an outrageous statement. In The Logic of Life (OUP, 1993) he predicted that the 21st century would witness “the progressive triumph of physiology over molecular biology”. Outrageous as it seemed in 1993, twenty years later the statement simply provoked general laughter from the huge audience at the closing ceremony of the World Congress of Physiological Sciences in Birmingham UK. The laughter was not to poke fun at molecular biology. On the contrary, molecular biology produced the most spectacular advances in medical science during the second half of the twentieth century. The laughter reveals that what was once outrageous now seems obvious. Having sequenced the human genome, and that of many other species, we don’t know what it all means!  That is what physiology is about. The word itself means the ‘logic of life’. What we have discovered is that the logic lies at higher levels in the organisation of living systems. This discovery has huge implications for the central theory of biology, the theory of evolution, as shown in a landmark issue (URL: http://jp.physoc.org/content/592/11.toc) of the Journal of Physiology this year, as also highlighted in another VOX video (URL: http://www.voicesfromoxford.org/video/evolution-and-physiology-a-new-synthesis/355). It also has deep implications for many other disciplines, such as economics, politics, social science and philosophy, that had absorbed the mistaken metaphors of molecular biology to mean that living organisms are determined by their DNA.

Voices from Oxford flourishes in the interdisciplinary environment of Oxford University and in future interviews and other videos we will be exploring those wide implications with leading philosophers, economists and social scientists worldwide.

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