Is Systems Biology the String Theory of Biology?

Is systems biology the string theory of biology? Not much in terms of analogy between subjects, but how the researchers working in the string theory and systems biology are looked up to by other researchers within physics and biology respectively.

The question was asked on Quora and here’s how Mary Wahl did justice to the phrase.

String theory’s pop-sci cachet as a subject that only the most brilliant minds can fathom has allowed it to siphon off some of the best talent in theoretical physics for the last four decades.  Even as it became clear that string theory was not generating testable hypotheses to warrant this investment of human capital, bright young folks still flocked to the field in droves. Even – especially? – people who had no capacity to understand string theory, like high school chess team captains and Dungeon Masters, professed a fascination with it in an absurd attempt at intellectual posturing. The less someone knows about string theory, the more they tend to respect it.

I’d argue much the same for systems biology. The very name itself is an attempt to distance the field from its result-poor antecedents, “cybernetics” and “new cybernetics”. A typical systems biologist may use linear algebra and differential equations: unfortunately, given the state of biology education in America, this is quite enough to make the systems biologist’s work utterly incomprehensible to most faculty in the biology department. A typical post-talk comment: “I don’t understand what he did – he must be really smart!”


This reverence for the systems biologists’ math skills breaks down when an experimentalist is directly asked to invest lots of time testing the generated predictions. The experimentalist is suddenly aware of the need to be critical of the systems biologists’ work (to avoid wasting his own time), but is no better prepared to critically evaluate it themselves, which leads to overcautious dismissal of testable hypotheses that systems biologists generate. And besides, who would spend years testing a prediction they had no intellectual investment in? This situation can end two ways:

  1. The systems biologists simply publish the theoretical result in some journal that classical biologists don’t read, hoping that somebody somewhere will test it (probably not), or
  2. Without any prior training in bench work, they attempt to perform the experiments themselves, often taking much longer or doing shoddier work than if an experienced experimentalist had taken over, leading to further distrust of their work.

On the other side of the coin, systems biologists have trouble garnering the support or interest of the more quantitative fields they try to emulate. Few systems biologists are doing theoretical work on a level that would allow them to join, say, an applied mathematics department. Since many systems biologists have an education in physics, they are sometimes hired by physics or applied physics departments, but there their work has a small audience and they may have trouble getting tenure. Perhaps it is unsurprising that systems biologists tend to cloister themselves in separate departments.

So, to summarize:

  • the only people both interested and qualified enough to evaluate the systems biologists’ work is the systems biologists themselves
  • few generated predictions are tested and few tested predictions are widely acknowledge
  • overhyped; most respected by people who don’t understand it.

String theorists and systems biologists: Interestingly, when string theorists turn to biology, they are more likely to get into systems biology than in any other area.


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