The New Biology

An article in the journal Science Translational Medicine got me excited about a shift in how researcher ideology affects how we think about health and illness. “NEW: Network-Enabled Wisdom in Biology, Medicine, and Health Care” by Eric Schadt and Johan Björkegren describes how the vast amounts of data from the study of genes, proteins, and molecular biology generally can now be analyzed from a comprehensive, systematic perspective. Instead of being confined to looking at single pathways, we can now look at the complex set of relationships at work in us. In other words, we can look at the whole, not just the parts.

My delight turned to disappointment when I read the article. Early on, the researchers say, “Mapping the connectivity structure of networks is crucial for understanding how biological processes are defined at the molecular level, how they can be disrupted to cause disease, and how we can best assess the risk of and intervene to treat disease.” Understanding health and disease holistically is badly needed. Unfortunately, the key defect in what I read is that work in this self-described New Biology remains focused “at the molecular level.”

It reminds me of an issue we discuss in our book: there is a difference in health ideology between disease and illness. Disease is the thing that the medical profession treats based on a collection of data called symptoms. Disease and diagnosis are things independent of the person. Illness, on the other hand, is what a person suffers. Treating an illness treats the person, disease and all.

So my disappointment is that this new scientific enterprise misses entirely something discussed in a wonderful little book published a few years ago titled The Music of Life by Denis Noble. The book uses music as a metaphor for understanding systems biology and much more. The New Biology is a version of systems biology, but a severely constrained one. In particular, Noble elegantly describes how understanding biology is not simply a matter of using advanced computational methods and network analysis to describe the complex relationship among molecular systems. Instead, what we now have the opportunity to do is understand how biology at each level of organization participates in the music of life: molecule, cell, tissue, organ, organism.

To make the point another way…

Applying powerful analytic tools to molecular processes in all their complexity will not help us fully understand disease let alone illness. What we need to do is apply powerful analytic tools to the processes of molecules, cells, tissues, organs, and organisms as a whole. And not just that complex soup, but the processes that enable each level of organization to communicate with others: not just your liver talking with you gut, but your stress hormones (that is, chemicals) talking with lymph cells.

What horrifies me about this research is what I saw on a video referenced by Schadt and Björkegren. The video covered three areas of research: cancer, infectious disease, and food production. Each segment described how the New Biology would revolutionize treating cancer, responding to pandemics, and feeding the world.

The ultimate objective of the New Biology in treating cancer is to develop new drugs and better use existing ones. The New Biology response to potential pandemics includes profiles from blood samples that will land you in quarantine or worse. And the New Biology is promised to double crop yields over the next two decades, happily brought to you by Monsanto.

I’m sure…

This is not New Biology. It is Industrial Biology. It is Capitalized Biology. It makes perfect sense of why these researchers are not guided by the insights of The Music of Life: the music made by the New Biology suits the needs of industrial capitalism and what it knows how to do.

Although the holistic perspective described in The Music of Life—that what organs do can’t be explained entirely by biochemistry and the what happens to an organism can’t be explained entirely by biochemistry or physiology—there is nothing inherent to it that would prevent Industrial Biology from finding a happy home for it. It’s just easier right now to fund more research that churns out drugs, methods of social control, and genetically modified organisms.

What’s missing from the New Biology is its failure to incorporate systems beyond the individual organism as relevant to health and illness. But isn’t it obvious that ecosystems and social systems are part of our biology, that they emerge from the actions of individual organisms? I’d go so far to say that those larger systems, especially social systems, have a greater effect than biochemistry because it is those systems that privilege the New Biology and its horrors over The Music of Life.