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Evolution and Physics

  1. Feb 4, 2007 #1
    Here's a question that some of the biology people might be able to answer. What role does physics play in the study of evolutionary biology? When I was in college last year, a physics professor once came to my seminar class to give a talk on the role of physics in evolutionary biology (unfortunately he spent about 90% of his time debunking creationism, which is unfortunate since almost no one in the class believed it to begin with). However, I haven't found any papers in physics journals that deal with the subject.

    So I'm just wondering if anyone knows how physics is used to study evolution. Are there any prominent physicists in this field that anyone could reference?
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  3. Feb 4, 2007 #2


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    Mathematical ideas of stable equilibria are applicable in the study of which gene copies will survive, just as the equilibrium thinking is important within physics. I don't know if you want more specifics than that.
  4. Feb 4, 2007 #3
    Thank you, and yes I would be interested in specifics. I would like to know more about how these ideas from physics (such as energetic stability) can be used to construct mathematical models in evolutionary biology. And as a graduate school applicant, I'd certainly be interested in any current research as well.
  5. Feb 4, 2007 #4


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    An obvious contribution is radioisotopic dating methods that have helped to date fossils and the geological strata those fossils are found in.
  6. Feb 4, 2007 #5
    That's a good point. I suppose we take such techniques for granted these days, and forget that they were contributed by physics.

    But I also must recall the statement that my freshman physics professor made on the first day of my first undergraduate physics class, "the fundamental question of physics is: how does a system evolve over time?" Now obviously, he wasn't referring specifically to biological evolution, but I wonder if physics can act as a predictive tool in evolution. For example, is it possible to use principles of energy conservation to predict the course of evolution in simple systems such as, say, bacteria growth?
  7. Feb 5, 2007 #6


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    That would be pushing it a bit too far. Simulating complex systems from just fundamental laws of physics (ie. things like Quantum Mechanics and Molecular physics) would be too "hard" a task to do. Even if you try, you will probably not get what normal biology or chemistry yield. as u know what u get from physics is just a set of reductionistic laws of nature. We often chop big problem down to small ones and solve each individually and find out all there is to find out about them, but that doesn't mean we know everything about the original problem.

    one of our university prof once said, Chemistry is like a very specialised branch of physics which concerns with all the delicacies in the reactions of the outer shell electrons. But as we all know that Chemistry is a very big field, and a lot of it is a mix of mathematical models as well as empirical laws (motivated by experiments)... indeed, although in principle you can use Quantum Mechanics to solve all your problems, when the system becomes complicated enough (ie becomes semi-classical), you would have lost some of the connections between the end results and the little "butterfly effects" that may have caused the results in the first place.

    by the way, I am not an advocate of Intelligent Design, although those people like to use arguments like such to "explain" why there must be a God....for physics can't predict human consciousness. My point however is that we must know what are the limits of our scientific theories, and shouldn't push it too far if it is not designed for that. My hope is that one day (infinity in the future) we will have a true "theory of everything".....but in the meantime we can just use what we've got with care.
  8. Feb 5, 2007 #7


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    Well, I don't know those specifics.
    However, I would like to say that just because biology and physics at times utilizes the same MATHEMATICAL tools, it doesn't follow that biology is getting these from physics.

    Another important mathematical tool is the analysis of difference equations, for example to determine bifurcation points, chaotic behaviour (and, of course, whether an equilibrium is stable or not).
  9. Feb 5, 2007 #8
    Actually, during my senior year I took a math course in mathematical biology. As you said, it had nothing to do with physics. But it was rather interesting to see how differential equations could be applied to simple (and a few not-so-simple) reaction pathways.
  10. Feb 5, 2007 #9
    Schrodinger has written about life from the perspective of a physicist:

    Last edited: Feb 5, 2007
  11. Aug 9, 2011 #10
  12. Aug 9, 2011 #11


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    I appreciate you wanting to help, but this thread ended over 4 years ago.
  13. Aug 10, 2011 #12
    But since you resurrected it, here is a link to what, I believe, arildno was referring to, aka, stable equilibria of genes


    There may be more recent, related studies...
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