Thursday, December 04, 2003

Biology vs Computer Science

I used to have this recurring argument with my boss. He (although he had no formal training in biology that I know of) insisted on the coming supremacy of biology over all other sciences and human activities. The information age was over, he'd say, to be supplanted by the biological age. When I was feeling especially snarky (not that rarely), I would characterize this as "In the future, we'll get food, clothing, and building materials from plants!" Of course, biology will become a more powerful generator of economic activity, no doubt. But what I disagreed with was that it was principles of biology that would reign supreme. On the contrary, I'd argue, it is the principles of information that will transform biology.

This is not a particularly popular belief among biologists these days, even as they query gigabyte databases to identify gene regulation networks. And the science of information is so inchoate these days that it's hard to imagine it transforming a field as broad, diverse, and established as biology. But to accomplish the very kinds of societal transformations that my boss dreamt of, biology must borrow the intellectual apparatus of computation, of complexity, of hierarchies of grammar, of, well, I hate to say it, math.

The influence will, of course, flow the other way. Just as the science of thermodynamics did not arise until Carnot studied the steam engine, the science of information could not -- still cannot -- arise until we study the computer. But just as thermodynamics is central to all nature, not just steam engines, we'll find that information is central to life, and not just in silicon.