Someone at the biology stack exchange website referred me to this site.

In studying for biology courses I feel as though I have to take things at face value. Is there a way to get around this and study from a more logical standpoint? I can memorize things but don't want to because I know from experience that I will forget about them later.

I am interested in studying disorders that are genetic in origin. However, I am having difficulty in understanding molecular and cellular mechanisms regarding processes such as meiosis, mitosis, and recombination. I was wondering if anyone knew of a way to study these processes from a physical standpoint. When I took a class that discussed these principles, I felt that it was more memorization rather than a deep understanding of concepts such as these. Again to ask my question, does anyone know about a physical (i.e., classical mechanical/electrodynamical(magnetic) or quantum mechanical/statistical mechanical/quantum electrodynamical and thermodynamic/kinetic) way of viewing these interactions and the logic behind why certain things happen in the manner that they do. I know that this is vague. I wish that I had taken cell biology first, then molecular biology and then genetics and developmental biology rather than the way that I was advised to. It makes a lot more sense that way.

Thank you.

  • 1
    I've taught a lot of biology students, and none of them have EVER asked me to explain concepts using more physics and chemistry. I'm afraid taking biology courses in a different order would not have increased your understanding, if that's how you process information. Biochemical engineering is quite cool these days -- have you looked into these courses and their corresponding materials?
    – Adrienne
    Apr 25, 2014 at 19:32
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    I propose changing the title to something like "Why is biology often taught as a collection of observations?"
    – Bitwise
    Apr 25, 2014 at 20:21
  • @Bitwise or "Why is biology often taught in such a way that it is dependent on rote memorization?" Apr 25, 2014 at 20:38
  • Just a comment about a similar situation studying chemistry: In our 2nd semester, we all complained that we had to learn by hard tons of facts about the elements in inorganic chemistry. Arguing that this is not how the mind of people who want to become chemists work: we wanted to understand not memorize. We also argued, that if learning by hard were easier for us than understanding, "medicine would have been the appropriate subject". One of the TAs basically said that unfortunately and in contrast to physics/physical chemistry, the underlying structure of knowledge was not yet well enough ... Apr 26, 2014 at 9:51
  • ... understood to be tought as principles (i.e. of course lots of principles and rules are known, but there is a substantial amount of exceptions and "fine-tuning" that in general this and that happens, but in all these important situations things differ this way etc) . He said that unfortunately, this part of the studies still has to rely on that in our brain, somehow things will sort themselves out when we put enough effort and facts together, and in the end we'll arrive at an implicitly formed understanding which cannot yet be taught explicitly. Apr 26, 2014 at 9:57

1 Answer 1


First, let me say that I share your feelings about the way biology is typically taught (i.e. as a collection of facts). I believe this will change in the not-so-far future.

Now, some historical perspective:

Biology was, for a long time, a field of science which was mostly concerned with making observations and collecting data. Even though people were interested in the underlying mechanisms, they were often very difficult to understand in a principled way. This is mostly because biological systems are complex systems, in the sense that very complicated system-level behavior (often referred to as phenotype, e.g. mitosis) emerges from interactions between many (e.g. tens of thousands) different types of elements. This makes these systems very difficult to understand by only looking at a handful of elements.

As our ability to collect and analyze data has improved due to technological advances (computing power and high-throughput biological experiments), along with a better ability to perform genetic perturbations (e.g. genetic engineering), biology is becoming more and more quantitative. This has given rise to new fields such as computational biology and systems biology. Still, this approach to biology is very new, and so most biology courses (and books) are taught in the "classic" way. In many cases, we simply do not understand yet the logic or mechanisms underlying certain phenomena in a quantitative way.

Since courses that teach biology from the systems biology / physics / mathematical perspective at an introductory level are still quite rare, I suggest starting with a book (for example, "Physical Biology of the Cell" by Phillips et al. is one such example of teaching biology from a physics perspective; SPOILER: statistical thermodynamics are very useful).

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