Well, I’ve been having fun reading John Hawks’ posts on the term “genomics,” and I’m sure Evolgen thinks I’m a bit too preoccupied with the three old thugs of population genetics…but this article, Marriage of Math and Genetics Forges New Scientific Landscape is kind of funny, the past is the future! After all, both R.A. Fisher and J.B.S. Haldane were trained as mathematicians, and Sewall Wright was a lover who regretted his early lack of experience. Over a year ago PLOS had a article out, Mathematics Is Biology’s Next Microscope, Only Better; Biology Is Mathematics’ Next Physics, Only Better. Yes, I think the days might be coming to an end when scientists who wanted to avoid math1 pursued biology…but this is where sociology is important. The influx of mathematically passionate individuals into modern biology is essential for the field to take off into new dimensions. Luca Cavalli-Sforza in A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey states that his book Cultural Transmission and Evolution made such a trivial impact on anthropology because the field did not have a critical mass of mathematically fluent individuals to understand the technical details he was presenting.2 Within biology itself most intellectual histories seem to suggest that the original ideas of Fisher, Wright and Haldane were often misunderstood because of the opacity of mathematical technique to most trained biologists. I am skeptical that Leibniz’s general algebra is going to arrive on the scene anytime soon, but many of the verbal jousts could, I believe, be obviated by recourse to more precise formalization. Where emotions can find secure purchase on the nooks and irregularities of words…mathematical notation is a more slippery species of beast.
1 – As a friend of mine has noted biology still explores only a small fraction of Hilbert space, fear not!
2 – Cavall-Sforza’s contention is debatable, human culture might simply be intractable using the analytic models that he put forward, but do note that it seems likely that the emergence of the Modern neo-Darwinian Synthesis was hindered by the lack of mathematical fluency in much of the biological community.