Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think : Reflections by Scientists, Writers, and Philosophers

By Alan Grafen; Mark Ridley | Go to book overview

THE INVENTION OF AN
ALGORITHMIC BIOLOGY

Seth Bullock

BIOLOGY and computing might not seem the most comfortable of bedfellows. It is easy to imagine nature and technology clashing as the green-welly brigade rub up awkwardly against the back-room boffins. But collaboration between the two fields has exploded in recent years, driven primarily by massive investment in the emerging field of bioinformatics charged with mapping the human genome. New algorithms and computational infrastructures have enabled research groups to collaborate effectively on a worldwide scale in building huge, exponentially growing genomic databases, to 'mine' these mountains of data for useful information, and to construct and manipulate innovative computational models of the genes and proteins that have been identified. This recent burst of high-profile activity might suggest that computer scientists have only just begun to work on biological questions, but activity at this particular disciplinary interface is by no means new. In fact, it has an extremely long history involving the most famous early pioneers of computing, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence.

In the 1950s, Alan Turing, the 'father of artificial intelligence' and a man fundamentally associated with codes, logic, chess, and other mechanico-mathematical arcana, developed influential models of biological morphogenesis:1 the processes involved in the development of biological patterns as an organism grows from a single cell. He was particularly interested in accounting for the tendency of spiral patterns in many plant structures to obey the Fibonacci sequence (e.g. if you count the number of whirls running clockwise on a pine cone and the number running anticlockwise,

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