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On a different note, I'm wondering what this comment means. It's from Fontdevila's The Dynamic Genome:
Systems biologists claim that [...] selection for robustness against protein misfolding (see above the haemoglobin and the HSp case studies) could explain why highly expressed proteins show low sequence evolution rate. This and other revealed emergent regularities in the form of correlations and distributions notwithstanding, there is a certain scepticism about the real value of systems biology. For example, Lynch (2007, p. 386), after pointing out that a similar attempt in the 1960s in the field of systems ecology ended with a total failure, asks himself whether systems biology will 'suffer the same fate, or is there really something special about the properties of organisms?' This sceptical view, I believe, would be subscribed today by many evolutionists.
I've been reading a bit of old stuff about systems ecology (this is a link to the Azimuth Wiki!) and would like to know why (some) people say it 'ended with a total failure'. I'd also like to know what Lynch means by 'is there really something special about the properties of organisms?' That seems like a strange question, prima facie.
With respect to your first question:
I've been reading a bit of old stuff about systems ecology (this is a link to the Azimuth Wiki!) and would like to know why (some) people say it 'ended with a total failure'.
I might be too young to provide an insightful perspective on the alleged failure of systems ecology. I'll provide a few guesses from my perspective regarding why systems ecology might've failed assuming that it did. I think many of the methods and ideas that came out of making an attempt at systems ecology have been useful, even if they have failed at providing a broad, coherent theory of ecological systems. If you wanted me to try to critique the assumption that systems ecology should be considered a failure, then I apologize for taking the wrong tack here. We can try to get into that meta-question later, but I'm afraid it might just become a sort of semantic pivot around the definition of failure.
My first instinct is to recall that there was neither computing power nor as much math in the 1960s. I think that alone could've made systems ecology at that time somewhat premature.
There was also Ludwig von Bertelanffy's general systems theory work that was (according to wikipedia) under development from about 1940-1970. This is embedded in the larger category of systems science indicating, as far as I can tell, that applying the word systems as an adjective to modify the name of some field of inquiry generally implies taking on a perspective of integrating detailed descriptive knowledge that has been gained throughout the history of said field to develop a more general theory for compressing, organizing, and understanding the information it contains. This kind of sounds to me like the relationship between physics and math. I'm not quite sure why this kind of stuff was developing in parallel, but wasn't viewed as being subsumed by the general relationship that physics and mathematics have shared for several centuries.
My aim in attempting to define what it means for a particular science to go systems is to make a second speculation about the presumed failure of systems ecology. This might sound absurd at first, but perhaps ecology defines a domain that is too restricted to constitute a systems science of itself. Perhaps in order for there to be a systems science for biological systems at any level of organization (i.e. several levels below molecular, molecular, cellular, organismal, population, community, ecosystem, and beyond!) it will be necessary to integrate at least several of what have historically been considered separate branches. If this is true then I think what I'm basically saying is that the concept of systems ecology may be intrinsically incomplete.
Regarding the relationship to the more modern movement in systems biology there is a problem. Much of the modern systems biology seems to be doing something similar to precisely what I just criticized about the development of systems ecology: that is to be systems (molecular biology). While I'm really excited about what the revolution in molecular biology has brought about technologically, in terms of understanding the evolution and operation of biological systems, this is another large set of descriptions at a particular level of hierarchical organization that might be even more useful if we could integrate that set of descriptions into a theoretical framework that will help us to think about and ultimately manipulate biological systems more effectively.
Regarding your second question:
I'd also like to know what Lynch means by 'is there really something special about the properties of organisms?'
I could be off base. I think another way of putting what Lynch is asking here is 'do we need or is it possible to construct a general theory within which to embed our current descriptions of biological systems?' Or, is that an essentially impossible task that would be a waste of time to even attempt because there is no special theoretical framework waiting to be discovered that will somehow unify or elevate our understanding of our observations of biological systems.