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The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st-Century Biology: Catalyzing Transformative Research
understanding how the ensemble of units produces new emergent modules and emergent properties and for understanding the architectural principles of how biological systems are assembled from such modules across scales from individual molecules to entire ecosystems.
As the new theoretical framework develops, constant evaluation and reevaluation are necessary to evaluate whether any given theory can make “predictions.” In physical systems, some processes are intrinsically unpredictable because they involve features that can only be described in probabilistic terms. Other systems are unpredictable even though they are completely deterministic, because of their chaotic dynamics and extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. For some physical systems, attempts to predict fail simply because the important controlling details of the components are not well understood. Most current biological modeling implicitly assumes that accurate predictions can be made once sufficient information about the biological system is available. However, it is possible that some biological processes will be intrinsically unpredictable because of principles analogous to chaos or quantum indeterminism. A fundamental goal of chemistry or engineering is to understand and predict the behavior of compositions of parts. A major area of biological theory will be developing a similar understanding of constructive principles of biological organizations.