In the course of subsequent chapters, it will be made clear that there are many theories, concepts, and principles that operate at the many levels of organization that biologists now study, on timescales from the picoseconds (10−12 s) of vibrational state changes of biomolecules to the 4.5 billion year history (1017 s) of planet Earth, and on size scales from elementary particles such as the electrons (10−15 m diameter) that are exchanged in biochemical reactions to the planet itself (107 m diameter), the physical characteristics of whose surface and atmosphere have been profoundly affected by life, from the evolution of oxygen-generating life forms billions of years ago to anthropogenic climate change today.
A model-based view of scientific theories complements the traditional view of (correct) scientific theories as sets of (true) statements of laws of nature, enriching our understanding of the theoretical enterprise and its multiple roles in empirical biology. If there are universal laws of nature, they are as likely to be discovered through study of a variety of models as by a direct search for them. The production of a variety of models to explore a given biological phenomenon from different perspectives creates opportunities, and deep need, for renewed attention to theory and support for theorists willing to question basic assumptions and standard approaches. Support for theoretical work in science, because of theory’s many entry points into biological practice, may require investment in both low-risk traditional as well as high-risk radically transformative approaches, since the robustness of empirical results to the idealizing assumptions of conventional models cannot properly be evaluated without worthy alternatives to compare. This report frames a series of questions about life that cut across established disciplinary perspectives while drawing on shared principles or theories that are central to all biological subdisciplines, including basic principles of evolution (life is descended from a common ancestor and natural selection is a key mechanism of change), of cell biology (all life is made of cells), and of heredity (specific evolved mechanisms of intergenerational information transfer account for genealogical relationships).