Thursday, February 02, 2012

Theory of Everything?

A new journal in biology called Life has published an unusual article in its inaugural edition: a paper by Erik Andrulis titled the "Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life." You can find the paper here. At 105 pages and 800 references, his paper seems Sokal-like, except it apparently is not a hoax at all. As a result this paper is unusual, but especially so for two reasons: first, Andrulis is apparently a well-respected biological scientist who has done important work on RNA, and second, Life appears to have all the trappings of a well-respected, peer-reviewed scientific journal, including a well-respected editorial board.

In essence, Andrulis outlines a theoretical framework  that (supposedly) unifies the microcosmic and macrocosmic realms, validates predicted laws of nature, and explains the origin and evolution of cellular life. Like most non-biologists encountering this paper, I've only skimmed it, but apparently reality consists of geometric entities "gyres." Sounds good, except Andrulis provides no evidence (as far as I can tell) that these gyres exist.

It's easy to criticize this paper, if only for ambition of his theory. In one section he purports to unify all laws of nature, while in another he addresses the meaning of life. Even more astounding is the offhand way he presents his theory. For example, on page 55, Andrulis briefly remarks: "Please note the unity of reality and life as revealed by this theory." Can the unity of reality even be "noted"? However, my favorite part of the paper is on page 61, simply because of the sheer grandiosity of his assertion: "I refer the reader to the Theory section for a complete presentation of theoretical answers to many of science’s most challenging questions."

Questions abound how this paper was published despite peer review (perhaps it was a publicity stunt for the journal), and about the sanity of Erik Andrulis. From the position of a sociologist of culture, however, the more interesting question concerns why this paper was so heavily criticized, and whether or not papers such as these have a place in scientific journals. Andrulis' paper, I suspect, is filled with flaws and inconsistencies, but I contend there is often insight from theoretical frameworks that we "know" are generally wrong. Thus, the problem, from my perspective, is not that Andrulis wrote this paper, but rather that there is not a biological journal (to my knowledge) where scientists can publish speculative or half-formed theories that are probably "wrong" but nonetheless help us think about the world in a different way. (Sociology, in contrast, in part because of our methodological pluralism and historical connections with philosophy, has a number of journals in which theories, even those that are highly speculative, can be developed and publicized.)