The challenges and scope of theoretical biology

David C. Krakauer, James Collins, Douglas Erwin, Jessica C. Flack, Walter Fontana, Manfred Laubichler, Sonja J. Prohaska, Geoffrey B. West, Peter F. Stadler

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Scientific theories seek to provide simple explanations for significant empirical regularities based on fundamental physical and mechanistic constraints. Biological theories have rarely reached a level of generality and predictive power comparable to physical theories. This discrepancy is explained through a combination of frozen accidents, environmental heterogeneity, and widespread non-linearities observed in adaptive processes. At the same time, model building has proven to be very successful when it comes to explaining and predicting the behavior of particular biological systems. In this respect biology resembles alternative model-rich frameworks, such as economics and engineering. In this paper we explore the prospects for general theories in biology, and suggest that these take inspiration not only from physics, but also from the information sciences. Future theoretical biology is likely to represent a hybrid of parsimonious reasoning and algorithmic or rule-based explanation. An open question is whether these new frameworks will remain transparent to human reason. In this context, we discuss the role of machine learning in the early stages of scientific discovery. We argue that evolutionary history is not only a source of uncertainty, but also provides the basis, through conserved traits, for very general explanations for biological regularities, and the prospect of unified theories of life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)269-276
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 7 2011


  • Computation
  • Model
  • Parsimony
  • Physics
  • Theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Applied Mathematics


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