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  1. Curious Wavefunction
    Dec 09 - 11:48 am

    I haven’t read the article, but are you sure Polanyi wasn’t simply criticizing reductionism in biology? Polanyi was well-known for arguing (in other articles from the 60s for instance) that the structure and function of DNA are as much constrained by higher-order processes as they are by the basic chemistry of phosphates and nucleotides. If that’s what he is saying then I completely agree with his assertion that biology is not a wholly molecular science. There are several emergent properties of biological systems that cannot be uniquely reduced to their molecular foundation. For instance, the chemical reactions involved in transcription and translation can tell us nothing about when and why certain genes are expressed.

    I find it hard to believe that Polanyi, writing in 1967, was unaware of the spectacular advances in biology that molecular approaches had made possible until then. So I am not sure whether he is completely rejecting a physiochemical basis for life or whether is just saying that the underlying laws of physics and chemistry don’t uniquely code for the higher-order functions of life (in which case he is simply saying that the “how” does not tell us much about the “why”). If it’s the latter than I agree with him.

  2. Rudy Baum
    Dec 19 - 1:34 pm

    @Curious Wavefunction: Polanyi wrote exactly what I quoted him as writing: “This principle precludes the possibility of biology ever becoming a molecular science.” He did not assert it could not be “a wholly molecular science”; he asserted that it could never be a molecular science.

    I think Polanyi’s analogy between a book and a DNA is also fundamentally flawed. A book’s information content is encoded in a symbolic logic of language. There is nothing symbolic about the information content of DNA–it’s entirely embedded in DNA’s structure. As to transcription and translation, are you suggesting that something other than chemical reactions are involved in turning on or off gene expression?

    I did not suggest that Polayni rejected a physicochemical basis of life in the essay published in C&EN. He said that biology could never be a molecular science, and in that, he was wrong. I don’t know where you draw the line between higher-order functions of life that fall into the “how” category of things and those that fall into the “why” category.

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