What aspects of biology need to be explained better?

By Grant Jacobs 15/11/2010

Sean Carroll, writing at Cosmic Variance, asks:

What is the one concept in science that you really think should be explained better to a wide audience?

His being a physics-based blogs, many of the answers relate to physics.

Mine being a biology-based blog, let’s try this with a biological focus:

What is the one aspect in biology that you really think should be explained better to a wide audience?

Unless you really must, I’d discourage people answering ‘evolution’.

Aside from that it’s a little too obvious a thing to point at, it’s really a collection of many concepts rather than one particular thing; that’s what theories do, pull things together.

You’ll notice that I sneaked in another change compared to Sean’s question, swopping ‘aspect’ for ‘concept’.

I’m a fan of focusing on concepts in presenting science to a wide audience. I think it’s the thing that most often can be pushed broadly.

But some important things aren’t really concepts as such, but background of other kinds. Concepts are abstract notions; some important things are straight-forward physical things.

One I’d like to see explained to biologists (as opposed – to a wide audience – is a better appreciation of the biophysical nature of the interior of a cell.*

For a wide audience, one I’d try is the statistical nature of biological processes.**

    There are others, and better choices I’m certain, but I’d best leave room for my visitors to comment!

    What do you think are aspects of biology that should be better explained to a wide audience?


    * Both relate to my interest in the 3-D architecture of genomes and the nucleus and gene regulation, but they also apply more widely. I have to many things I’d like to write here, that I’ve yet to tease them apart to blog-sized pieces.

    ** Others might be 1) Risk, particularly applied to health reporting, but also elsewhere. (David Winter has previously mentioned the issues of sensitivity and specificity in the context of health reporting and I have presented these in the context of  benchmarking bioinformatics software), and 2) Better logical argument and criticism. (OK, that second one is not biology so I’m cheating on my own question, but it’s critical for anyone to look at any subject.)

    Other articles on Code for life:

    How long does it take you to write a science blog post?

    Fainting kittens – feline myotonia congenita?

    Are beached whales and dolphins deaf?

    Finding platypus venom

    Autism – looking for parent-of-origin effects

    0 Responses to “What aspects of biology need to be explained better?”

    • I think a big one is the concept of dose-dependence of effects for any compound. People freak out over exposure to certain compounds in foods or containers or the environment, even though the dose required to acheive the effect is ofter many fold higher than typical exposures. Similarly, with drugs, people often decide to regulate their dosages without consulting a physician. “I’ll take 1/2 the dose…” Then “I’ll take 1/2 of 1/2…” and so on. Or they go the other way and decide that if one is good, 2 must be better. They don’t realize how much data is behind the doses and the allowable limits and why those limits exist.

    • Good one, BB! I am often caught explaining why “toxic” things can be beneficial. The idea of “therapuetic dose” is a good one: even too much water can kill you! More is always more, but not always better.

      I would like to see a better understanding of the concept of “risk”. One thing that drives me crazy is when people talk about “increased risk of x%”. Without ever considering what the actual risk is. For example: is your decision changed if your risk goes from 0.01% to 0.015%? What about if it goes “up 50%”.

    • Well, it’s often the general knowledge of biology that depresses me. “No, tigers aren’t found in Africa; no, white tigers are not Siberians, they’re a genetic mutant etc”

      I find often the most challenging aspect of talking about biology is just what I think the audience knows, is often surprisingly less than I anticipate.

    • The knowledge I most end up having to correct is what it means for something to be a different species. I know it’s a basic thing but must people seem to have this somewhat antiquated idea that it’s entirely encapsulated by what can produce viable offspring with what.

    • I see a difference between biological and physical sciences in that biological entities are not consistent. For example, you can pick two stones off the beach and drop them and gravity will affect them the same way. But two plants or two fish may react differently to the same stimulii because of genetic or learned differences.

    • Why does the Law of Conservation of Parity not apply to ‘Life’?
      ie. why are living systems always left handed?

    • This is probably a bit outside of the square but I would say, the integrated nature of biology. You can’t take a bit here & a bit there & leave out all the stuff you don’t like, because it’s all related somehow. Sry if that’s a bit confusing 🙂

    • I would say evolution, but actually because want Grant means by evolution up there isn’t what most people think of evolution

      1). Evolution isn’t just natural selection. Natural selection explains one of the most striking things about the biological world: it works! All those complex traits that make organisms looked designed are thanks to selection. But there is a lot more to biology that that. There are 10 million species on earth, evolutionary theory needs to explain that as well!

      2) Evolution has no in-built drive to progress or complexity. Anyone that uses the phrases “more evolved” or “devolution” needs to read up a little about the process

    • Hmm… interesting range of ideas so far! I might tackle a few in order.

      biochem belle,

      You might also need to explain “fold higher”, too! 😉 You obviously share the same thoughts of horror at medical DIY as I and others here do.

      Dose-dependence is a good one. The results of different levels of doses can be quite different.

    • Gerty-Z,

      Agreed. I linked to David’s explanation of risk in my second footnote – I think he did pretty well. (My own explanation is in a geeky context, of benchmarking bioinformatics software.)


      The “facts”, rather the concepts? I think one of the “tricks” of better popular science writing is to clue the reader into things that they might not know in passing, without spelling it out in a way that might patronise – trying to cater for different levels of knowledge. You might, for example, drop in an explanation as an in-line remark: “White tigers—larger and paler compared to their orange siblings due to a recessive ‘white’ gene variant —are …” It can be an headache and a lot of work trying to think through and spot each instance of this sort of thing in what you are trying to way, though!


      My reference to the “statistical nature” of biological systems is possibly a bit obscure (an irony and an understatement), but it underpins a lot of things including the genetic and epigenetic variability you refer to. (At a molecular level, it impacts on chemical reactions and interactions, and so on.) I suspect a theoretical physicist might nitpick your claim, though 😉 They might point out that you only get the predicability that you’re thinking of at the level of physics that can be explained well by Newtonian physics.

    • As an evolutionary biologist, I do have to say that evolution (kind of) needs to be explained better – however, I don’t think that the thing that needs explaining most about evolution is the idea of natural selection, I think that most people have at least heard of that, but the thing that people so often misunderstand about the whole world of evolutionary biology (or many other areas of science for that matter) is that within the discipline, generally everyone accepts the overarching theory as fact, but that people have different ideas about the degrees of importance of various features of the theory, the primary mechanisms within the system, the exact way that things happen. People seem to think that because there is a degree of conflict, with one or more factions arguing about the mechanisms within the theory, that it means that we can’t agree and that the whole thing is bunkum, when really, it means that the discipline is alive and well and progressing normally as far as the scientific process goes.

      So yeah, that’s my thing. Maybe we should just be educating people more about how science works – that people have ideas and they argue about them to refine them.

    • you are asking systems scientists and engineers to stay in tiny niches that suit your fancy.! My notion of physics is an ultimate detailed (electron level);view of the universe in so far as such is possible by the best systems scientists and engineers alive today!. Roger Penrose of the UK and Leon Lederman of the US are best examples of well knowns that have arrived there—please read their books if you are curious– to my Mind’s eye, gravity force is broad spectrum electron radiation that impinges on every atom of our body —in the direction of the Black Hole nuclear center of the Earth.


      in a nutshell, the code of life that all forms use the same- is that all communciation within the said outline of every life form is via electrons that carry information between all functional elements that we can identify using the best of Microscopes. Each electron is a complex helical string wave pattern of 1/h-squared Higgs particles and their frequency of pulsing alone defines their energy per the Planck realtion E = nh where our crudeness of measure requires that mimum n value of n = h so that all life forms communicate in terms of gross multiples of 1/h electrons. Least discrete (Quantum) mass and energy are h grams and h ergs. If we are not smart enought to use CGS units of measure like astronomy does, we forever get Detail-Lost and are doing the equivalent of gross arm waving in all branches of science! It good for false ego and the economy but it should be called being a Real World (per Penrose) Scientist (including biologist!) of any stripe!

      [Ed: Please use the website to submit comments, not email replies to the RSS feed.]

    • I find it difficult to teach Bio121: “The cell and heredity” to students who have absolutely no background in chemistry and don’t understand the metric system. I’m not even sure that biology ought to be taught on the freshman level. If my students knew some chemistry & math, I wouldn’t have to spend so much of the semester explaining atomic structure, bonding characteristics, the nature of the water molecule, etc., and could get on with the actual biology. Of course, the administration won’t even hear of having prereqs for an introductory biology course.