Author:
Alice Sessions
Subject:
Biology
Material Type:
Module
Level:
Community College / Lower Division
Tags:
Hypothesis, Scientific Method
License:
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
Language:
English

The Science of Biology

The Science of Biology

Overview

What is biology? In simple terms, biology is the study of living organisms and their interactions with one another and their environments. This is a very broad definition because the scope of biology is vast. Biologists may study anything from the microscopic or submicroscopic view of a cell to ecosystems and the whole living planet (Figure 1.2). Listening to the daily news, you will quickly realize how many aspects of biology are discussed every day. For example, recent news topics include Escherichia coli (Figure 1.3) outbreaks in spinach and Salmonella contamination in peanut butter. Other subjects include efforts toward finding a cure for AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. On a global scale, many researchers are committed to finding ways to protect the planet, solve environmental issues, and reduce the effects of climate change. All of these diverse endeavors are related to different facets of the discipline of biology.

Introduction

 What is biology? In simple terms, biology is the study of living organisms and their interactions with one another and their environments. This is a very broad definition because the scope of biology is vast. Biologists may study anything from the microscopic or submicroscopic view of a cell to ecosystems and the whole living planet (Figure 1.2). Listening to the daily news, you will quickly realize how many aspects of biology are discussed every day. For example, recent news topics include Escherichia coli (Figure 1.3) outbreaks in spinach and Salmonella contamination in peanut butter. Other subjects include efforts toward finding a cure for AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. On a global scale, many researchers are committed to finding ways to protect the planet, solve environmental issues, and reduce the effects of climate change. All of these diverse endeavors are related to different facets of the discipline of biology.

Figure 1.2.  Formerly called blue-green algae, these (a) cyanobacteria, shown here at 300x magnification under a light microscope, are some of Earth’s oldest life forms. credit a: modification of work by NASA
Figure 1.2.  Formerly called blue-green algae, these (a) cyanobacteria, shown here at 300x magnification under a light microscope, are some of Earth’s oldest life forms. credit a: modification of work by NASA
These (b) stromatolites along the shores of Lake Thetis in Western Australia are ancient structures formed by the layering of cyanobacteria in shallow waters. credit b: modification of work by Ruth Ellison
These (b) stromatolites along the shores of Lake Thetis in Western Australia are ancient structures formed by the layering of cyanobacteria in shallow waters. credit b: modification of work by Ruth Ellison
Figure 1.3. Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria, seen in this scanning electron micrograph, are normal residents of our digestive tracts that aid in the absorption of vitamin K and other nutrients. However, virulent strains are sometimes responsible for disease outbreaks.
Figure 1.3. Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria, seen in this scanning electron micrograph, are normal residents of our digestive tracts that aid in the absorption of vitamin K and other nutrients. However, virulent strains are sometimes responsible for disease outbreaks.

 

The Process of Science

Biology is a science, but what exactly is science? What does the study of biology share with other scientific disciplines? Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) can be defined as knowledge that covers general truths or the operation of general laws, especially when acquired and tested by the scientific method. It becomes clear from this definition that the application of the scientific method plays a major role in science. The scientific method is a method of research with defined steps that include experiments and careful observation.

The steps of the scientific method will be examined in detail later, but one of the most important aspects of this method is the testing of hypotheses by means of repeatable experiments. A hypothesis is a suggested explanation for an event, which can be tested. Although using the scientific method is inherent to science, it is inadequate in determining what science is. This is because it is relatively easy to apply the scientific method to disciplines such as physics and chemistry, but when it comes to disciplines like archaeology, psychology, and geology, the scientific method becomes less applicable as it becomes more difficult to repeat experiments.

These areas of study are still sciences, however. Consider archeology—even though one cannot perform repeatable experiments, hypotheses may still be supported. For instance, an archeologist can hypothesize that an ancient culture existed based on finding a piece of pottery. Further hypotheses could be made about various characteristics of this culture, and these hypotheses may be found to be correct or false through continued support or contradictions from other findings. A hypothesis may become a verified theory. A theory is a tested and confirmed explanation for observations or phenomena. Science may be better defined as fields of study that attempt to comprehend the nature of the universe.

Natural Sciences

What would you expect to see in a museum of natural sciences? Frogs? Plants? Dinosaur skeletons? Exhibits about how the brain functions? A planetarium? Gems and minerals? Or, maybe all of the above? Science includes such diverse fields as astronomy, biology, computer sciences, geology, logic, physics, chemistry, and mathematics (Figure 1.4). However, those fields of science related to the physical world and its phenomena and processes are considered natural sciences. Thus, a museum of natural sciences might contain any of the items listed above.

Figure 1.4. The diversity of scientific fields includes astronomy, biology, computer science, geology, logic, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and many other fields. (credit: “Image Editor”/Flickr)
Figure 1.4. The diversity of scientific fields includes astronomy, biology, computer science, geology, logic, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and many other fields. (credit: “Image Editor”/Flickr)

There is no complete agreement when it comes to defining what the natural sciences include, however. For some experts, the natural sciences are astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics. Other scholars choose to divide natural sciences into life sciences, which study living things and include biology, and physical sciences, which study nonliving matter and include astronomy, geology, physics, and chemistry. Some disciplines such as biophysics and biochemistry build on both life and physical sciences and are interdisciplinary. Natural sciences are sometimes referred to as “hard science” because they rely on the use of quantitative data; social sciences that study society and human behavior are more likely to use qualitative assessments to drive investigations and findings.

Not surprisingly, the natural science of biology has many branches or subdisciplines. Cell biologists study cell structure and function, while biologists who study anatomy investigate the structure of an entire organism. Those biologists studying physiology, however, focus on the internal functioning of an organism. Some areas of biology focus on only particular types of living things. For example, botanists explore plants, while zoologists specialize in animals.

 

Scientific Reasoning

One thing is common to all forms of science: an ultimate goal “to know.” Curiosity and inquiry are the driving forces for the development of science. Scientists seek to understand the world and the way it operates. To do this, they use two methods of logical thinking: inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning.

Inductive reasoning is a form of logical thinking that uses related observations to arrive at a general conclusion. This type of reasoning is common in descriptive science. A life scientist such as a biologist makes observations and records them. These data can be qualitative or quantitative, and the raw data can be supplemented with drawings, pictures, photos, or videos. From many observations, the scientist can infer conclusions (inductions) based on evidence. Inductive reasoning involves formulating generalizations inferred from careful observation and the analysis of a large amount of data. Brain studies provide an example. In this type of research, many live brains are observed while people are doing a specific activity, such as viewing images of food. The part of the brain that “lights up” during this activity is then predicted to be the part controlling the response to the selected stimulus, in this case, images of food. The “lighting up” of the various areas of the brain is caused by excess absorption of radioactive sugar derivatives by active areas of the brain. The resultant increase in radioactivity is observed by a scanner. Then, researchers can stimulate that part of the brain to see if similar responses result.

Deductive reasoning or deduction is the type of logic used in hypothesis-based science. In deductive reason, the pattern of thinking moves in the opposite direction as compared to inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is a form of logical thinking that uses a general principle or law to forecast specific results. From those general principles, a scientist can extrapolate and predict the specific results that would be valid as long as the general principles are valid. Studies in climate change can illustrate this type of reasoning. For example, scientists may predict that if the climate becomes warmer in a particular region, then the distribution of plants and animals should change. These predictions have been made and tested, and many such changes have been found, such as the modification of arable areas for agriculture, with change based on temperature averages.

Both types of logical thinking are related to the two main pathways of scientific study: descriptive science and hypothesis-based science. Descriptive (or discovery) science, which is usually inductive, aims to observe, explore, and discover, while hypothesis-based science, which is usually deductive, begins with a specific question or problem and a potential answer or solution that can be tested. The boundary between these two forms of study is often blurred, and most scientific endeavors combine both approaches. The fuzzy boundary becomes apparent when thinking about how easily observation can lead to specific questions. For example, a gentleman in the 1940s observed that the burr seeds that stuck to his clothes and his dog’s fur had a tiny hook structure. On closer inspection, he discovered that the burrs’ gripping device was more reliable than a zipper. He eventually developed a company and produced the hook-and-loop fastener popularly known today as Velcro. Descriptive science and hypothesis-based science are in continuous dialogue.

Figure 1.7. Scientists use two types of reasoning, inductive and deductive reasoning, to advance scientific knowledge. As is the case in this example, the conclusion from inductive reasoning can often become the premise for inductive reasoning.
Figure 1.7. Scientists use two types of reasoning, inductive and deductive reasoning, to advance scientific knowledge. As is the case in this example, the conclusion from inductive reasoning can often become the premise for inductive reasoning.

 

Exercises

Decide if each of the following is an example of inductive or deductive reasoning.

  1. All flying birds and insects have wings. Birds and insects flap their wings as they move through the air. Therefore, wings enable flight.Show Answer

     

  2. Insects generally survive mild winters better than harsh ones. Therefore, insect pests will become more problematic if global temperatures increase.Show Answer

     

  3. Chromosomes, the carriers of DNA, separate into daughter cells during cell division. Therefore, DNA is the genetic material.Show Answer

     

  4. Animals as diverse as humans, insects, and wolves all exhibit social behavior. Therefore, social behavior must have an evolutionary advantage.

    Show Answer