Each biologist interprets biological phenomena using the data and the tools at hand and a theoretical framework, often acquired through years of education and practice. Molecular biologists seek to explain the elephant by exploring the workings of its genome, ecologists by determining the elephant’s role in its environment, neuroscientists by figuring out how the elephant senses and reacts to that environment. Developmental biologists look at how the elephant develops from a single fertilized egg, and evolutionary biologists seek the path by which the elephant came to be the way it is. All combine theories, experiments, observations, and inferences to understand something about the elephant. Unlike the blind men, all are well aware that the elephant cannot be explained by its genes, environment, or history alone. Also, use of this metaphor should not be taken to mean that the committee believes that all biologists should be working at the level of the “whole elephant.” Detailed research (the “reductionist” approach) will continue to be critically important and productive. Nevertheless, answers to such questions as “Why is the elephant so large?,” “How will global warming affect the elephant?,” “How many elephants are needed to preserve the species from extinction?,” and “What would be the consequences of extinction?” clearly require input from all areas of biology. Combining insights from different scales and explicitly linking them to see how different approaches complement each other, and to see larger patterns, will allow a richer conceptual basis for “understanding the elephant” to be built. By explicitly giving theory equal status with the other aspects of biology, biological science can become even more productive in the 21st century.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement