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Learning Biology concepts instead of facts

  1. Sep 12, 2011 #1
    I am currently taking Biology 2 and learning about Micro organisms like bacteria and fungi. However, I find both listening to my professor lecturing and reading the material draining and only slightly interesting. Its like learning another language where nothing seems to hold much significance and it all feels like the professor is just trying to bombard my senses with trivial material without explaining the reasoning behind it all.

    Thing is that my Bio 1 professor also just regurgitated facts even though in the PRINCIPLES of Biology course you would expect much more emphasis on the primary theories that govern living organisms. We never even got to evolution, much less discussing biochemistry or cell theory.

    So my question is this, What sources can I use to finally gain a deep understanding of the principle theories that govern the field? Where can I find explanations of why a difference/similarity in various organisms/or processes matters, what axioms (a biological theory) is deduced from, and any other important frameworks that might be nice to hold in the back of my mind when delving into the characteristics of a million different organisms.

    Any online video/audio lectures, written lectures, or outside reading material that would give me more of the above while teaching me all of the basics rather than the fact sheets of info that seem to be so common?

    To give you an idea of what I look for, I'm more of the philosophical type that likes explanations to be abstract and wants to build a system of understanding from time zero to future possibilities.

    Appreciate any suggestions that can be provided
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 13, 2011 #2
    That's a challenge with Biology. The fields of science used to be divided into natural history and natural philosophy, with the disciplines we now think of as chemistry and physics falling mostly in the natural philosophy group and biology and geology in the natural history group. I find this a useful distinction; the natural philosophies are more suited to finding theoretical principles that have good predictive power while the natural histories look at the characteristics of things (including creatures) that are the product of stochastic events though awesome time scales.

    As you go deeper into biology, at the molecular level (biochem & molec. genetics) some of biology feels more like natural philosophy, with fairly well-ordered processes and mechanisms that, once learned, allow some predictive power. However, even at that level the time scales and accidents that shift the course of evolution are constantly cropping up.

    What you are learning now is the natural history foundation of biology. As you move farther into the subject, you will reach farther into chemistry and physics to understand the organisms and with that the field will take on more of the flavor of natural philosophy. I suspect that you will enjoy biology more and more if you continue your studies while doing parallel work in chemistry, moving toward a goal of taking biochemistry and molecular biology.

    You are right to complain if you haven't heard much on evolution yet, though when I was teaching at a university 14 years ago I recall that some students were appalled and angry when told they must learn about evolution in a first-year biology class. I think some instructors might put that discussion off for the second year so they don't have to confront the non-majors (I'm not saying that's a good thing, I was always willing to insist that the most fundamental theory of modern biology by discussed in any level of bio).

    In the end, we all teach ourselves. The foundations classes are important, but keep learning on your own. Bio will get better as you move to upper-division classes. Light-reading magazines like Scientific American and American Scientist are good sources for a few years. Start reading at least the editorial stuff in Science and Nature; the jargon in the research papers can be dense, but these will get easier as you learn more of the language specific to biology (and your fundamentals classes are really over 50% language classes). This is a good time to read the Origin of Species -- I suspect you'll like that one if you've not yet tackled it.
  4. Sep 13, 2011 #3
    Mathematics. You wouldn't think that though huh? What caused the origin of life on earth? What controls the origin of species? What is causing the increase in complexity of biology on earth with time? Why was there a dramatic change in bio-diversity about 600 million years ago? What caused the rapid evolution of hominids in the last 2-4 million years? Why are humans so different from apes yet share 98% of DNA? What is the origin of consciousness?

    There is an intimate connection between biology, mathematics, and the workings of the Universe. They are all cut from the same cloth. Understand the mathematics, and the other two emerge naturally.

    I'm not sayin' I know the math ok? Well no more than 1% alright? I'm just saying in my personal opinion, math is the way to understand the "why" behind biology.

    So you asked about "deep understanding" right? Well there you go: it's mathematics all the way down.

    Oh yeah, I'd like to give some empirical grounding to support my claim above so as not to be accused of overly-speculative post: the termite mound. These wonderful clay cathederals are highly complex but the termites do not understand nor actively control the construction. Rather some have suggested the mound emerges as a consequence of the dynamics between termites, mud, and phermone. These dynamics can be modeled (somewhat) by a system of differential equations which when allowed to evolve (in 3D) produce (simple) structures that resemble the topography of termite mounds. See "Self-Organization in Biological Systems" by Camazine, et.al. So in this context, it's not the termite, or the phermone, or the biology, or the chemistry or physics that is building the mound but rather the dynamics, and if those dynamics can be described by mathematics, which it seems at least some parts can, then in order to understand (completely) the "why" of the mound, one should include understanding the (plausable) mathematics of it possible emergence.
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2011
  5. Sep 13, 2011 #4


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    I agree with points from both Jon and jack, but where they said "biochemistry" or "mathematics", I'd say "physics". But I think that the point is that biology (as Jon said) is a "history" study; we don't expect fundamental laws of physics to be different in a biological system, but the fundamental laws of physics already allow for a very rich and complex universe. We are essentially studying how the physics were played out; and this really requires a multidisciplinary approach.

    To dynamicists like myself, though (and also possibly jackmell) there might actually be something of a fundamental study here, not just 'history'. The study of dynamics. What kinds of matter/energy relationships separate living things from "inanimate" (but still richly dynamical) processes like the weather? Not in terms of the matter or energy present, but in terms of the relationships between them, the configuration space; the spatiotemporal structure of the system.

    So perhaps studying the history does teach us new things about the physics and this is why we have biophysics, geophysics, and psychophysics all as disciplines. And this is why we have biocehmistry, geochemistry, and this is why we have physical chemistry and mathematical biology and mathematical physics.

    So I guess, take your pick.
  6. Sep 14, 2011 #5
    How about I take another one so no one accuses me of just using termites all the time: Why Punctutated Equilibrium? For me I ask why didn't Gould frame that within the context of Catastrophe Theory? But please don't mistaken that for noah and the arc kind'a thing alright. Catastrophe Theory is a bonafide mathematical discipline and for me it explains wonderfully, the principle of Punctutated Equilibrium but biologist often hate math so Gould kept it within the confines of biology.

    In Nature, processes do not flow smoothly always but rather are often interrupted by abrupt, dramatic changes, the "straw that breaks the camel's back" or "shock-phenomena" this is sometimes called. This kind of behavior is a fundamendal property of the Universe so it should be no surprise to see it reflected in biology. These "shock-phenomena" can be beautifully explained by differential equations and there is little doubt in my mind that shock-phenomena caused the origin of life on earth, the Cambrian Explosion, the (relatively) rapid evolution of man 2-4 million years ago, and the "straw" that causes the meer 2% of DNA to have such a profound difference between man and ape.

    So back to the focus of this thread: Deep understandings. Well, underneath lies a phenomenon nicely modeled by differential equations and in this particular case I will do the unheard of: I'll post a differential equation in the biology forum. But no Jack please. Yes, I want to illustrate how I believe the Cambrian explosion could be modeled by a simple equation:


    So you want deep understandings huh? Well, study that equation, extract the cusp-catastrophe from it, and then frame the Cambrian explosion along it's surface.

    Also, I believe I can submit empirical grounding for this particular view, in particular for the relatively rapid evolution of man about 2 million years ago in the form of three changes that occurred in his physiology that accelerated his brain development. One was a mutation in a brain protein, another was a change in his jaw anatomy, and I do not recall the third. I can't find the paper at present however but if the mods request such I guess I can research it. Surely someone here knows what paper I'm talking about. My point is that these changes represented "shock-phenomena" that caused the abrupt change in the evolution of man.
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2011
  7. Sep 14, 2011 #6


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    There is a big difference between biology and physics as has been mentioned. In biology there are no fundamental laws, instead there is a vast range of observations and exceptions. Whereas a law in physics is applicable across any circumstance in biology our observations are only ever applicable in a narrow range, all observations tend to come with the caveat "under these conditions".

    My advise would be not to try to focus on the physics or mathematics behind biology (unless that is your interest) but to continue reading a broad range of subjects. The concepts, methods and approaches are so different depending on the field of biology in question that you are never going to find a book entitled "Fundamental Principles of Biology" that does what it says on the tin.

    So choose a field and read all you can get. That's all I can say really.
  8. Sep 14, 2011 #7
    there's some basis for saying mathematics as a start. if say you want to start with mendelian genetics, then you might google something like http://www2.estrellamountain.edu/faculty/farabee/biobk/BioBookgenintro.html" [Broken] and realize that this sort of discovery requires a couple of things. first, observation and insight. and then some very basic math in the form of arithmetic and ratios - very basic statistical analysis.

    and then the microscopy mentioned from that same page, takes a wild curiosity and applies it to a new physics toy.

    another big theme, and what i think drives the science, is man's dominion over his environment and his desire to shape and control it.

    but for you, you've got to decide for yourself what it is that motivates you. what do you want to do with biology?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
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