The Art of Reductionism

by Neha Sahota | Online Reporter | SQ Online (2020-2021)

Famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy once said that “human science fragments everything in order to understand it, kills everything in order to examine it.” While this may seem like a bold statement from someone who did not work in science, he makes an important point: science’s tendency to favor the fragmentation of topics is not always as beneficial as it may seem. Typically, science is organized into three main disciplines: physics, chemistry, and biology. At UC San Diego, different science majors specialize in various components within these disciplines. Each major has several specialized classes; each class has a textbook that splits the topic further into chapters; and each chapter is divided into sections that cover key ideas. This organizational system derives from the philosophical concept known as reductionism, a controversial yet widely utilized ideology that informs much of the way we learn science. The real question centers around whether or not reductionism is the best way for scientists to organize information. Our tendency towards favoring reductionism may be hindering our ability to progress in science. In fact, using other teaching and learning strategies may help us advance faster than before. 

In order to understand the role that reductionism plays in science, we must first understand what  reductionism is. Though it takes many different forms (theoretical, methodological, epistemic, etc.), the reductionist perspective breaks down and explains complex topics through a single foundational knowledge base (1). For instance, the lens of reductionism breaks down the culinary arts to chemistry by reasoning that we are ultimately looking at how molecules combine and interact to create flavors in the culinary arts. Reductionism pervades science in forms that are both mild and extreme. One example of the latter is consistent efforts by some scientists to reduce everything in the universe (including chemistry) to extensions of physics, which could make understanding the universe easier (2). 

However, the flaws of reduction must be acknowledged. We can use the example of human thought to acknowledge some of its drawbacks. Humans have many complex thoughts every day, many of which can be broken down into  interactions of molecules in a neural network. Unfortunately, this kind of reductionist reasoning vastly undercuts the complexity behind thoughts. Our thinking patterns have tremendous implications for the human race and our biology. Though reduction does break down the structure of thoughts, their function through evolution or otherwise is not abundantly clear. This is something that can be problematic in that it limits perspective and understanding (3). 

On the other hand, biology as a subject may not be as reductionistic as it initially appears. Though biologists have broken down the body into different organ systems, tissues, and cells, there is another side of biology that considers the broader context of living systems: evolutionary biology. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution accounts for a possible explanation for why we have thoughts: our thoughts, self-awareness, and the premonition confers us an evolutionary advantage that has facilitated survival and “mastery” of the environment around us (3). The holistic reasoning provided by Darwin’s theory does not seek to simplify what evolution is. Instead, his theory adds a layer of complexity to existing knowledge and suggests that there is much more to be discovered, This something that reductionist thought tends to stray away from. However, it is worth noting that having a singular theory of evolution is, in itself, a reductionist concept. 

The debate surrounding reductionism has led to a split in current scientific thought. World renowned scientists stand on both ends of the spectrum, heightening the level of controversy. Francis Crick, a neuroscientist famous for his contributions to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure, once famously proclaimed that “Your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” (4). Crick is not completely incorrect. We can understand much of who we are by reducing ourselves to known chemical, physical, and biological interactions. However, by consistently thinking along the lines of reductionism, we risk ignoring the non-biological ramifications of our theories. For example, there have been immense social ramifications that have resulted from reductionist theory. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s development of the “5 races” only served to justify existing racial prejudice. Instead, considering  the possibility of the “other,”more complex and undiscovered topics is far more promising for the development of science. What are “other” interactions that exist that we cannot even conceive in the present day? Are there entire disciplines yet to be discovered? After all, Issac Newton said even after discovering gravity that “What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.” (14) As reduction constantly seeks to simplify the complex, it is difficult to increase the complexity of certain topics and broaden our horizons. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has expressed his distaste for the reductionist mindset, writing on Twitter that he thinks reductionism is a way of saying “I’m terrified of science but too confused to give a meaningful reason, so I’ll use a meaningless word that sounds good.” (5) Though Dawkins’ argument insinuates that Francis Crick was “terrified” of science, it raises an important point: science isn’t about keeping things simple, but instead the significance of science lies in seeing just how complex systems can become. 

Is a mouse the sum of its parts?

While reductionism definitely helps students to break down human biology into 12 UC San Diego classes and 48 units, some things might be lost in the fragmentation of this topic. For instance, Gregor Mendel discovered that reproduction is not as simple as producing an offspring that is exactly half mother and half father, which demonstrates how our existing knowledge of science is often challenged by new discoveries. Rules are broken, new ones are created, and then they are broken again, forcing us to reconsider what is possible. Time and time again, “earth-shattering” revelations challenge the simplicity of science as we know it. Perhaps the Earth isn’t flat, and atoms aren’t indivisible? Can we really break down human senses into 5 categories, or are there more? Is genetics really just the “blending” of parental characteristics? These questions have challenged the status quo of fundamental scientific knowledge at different points in time. Questions like this demonstrate a nuanced understanding that breaks away from the binary perspective and rigid codification that science tends to adhere to. As a result of asking these questions, humans have made immense progress in the discovery of Earth’s shape, nuclear fission, proprioception, and Mendelian genetics, respectively. The constant questioning doesn’t stop. As much as we think we know about a topic, new questions emerge daily to solidify our understanding of the world around us. More recently, the move away from reductionism has allowed for the development of new subfields like “integrative physiology,” in which the body is studied at several levels of organization. This is done through examining how the body acts at a cellular level compared to an organ level, compared to how organ systems work together.  Fields like integrative physiology follow a scientific reasoning that examines emergent properties, which only come into fruition when the system is looked at as a whole rather than its constituent parts (6).The existence and invisibility of emergent properties is yet another sign that reductionism is hindering important scientific progress. 

Many of the tools and mathematical modelling systems utilized in science are inherently reductionist. An example of this can be found in bioinformatics, as Virologist Marc H.V. Van Regenmortel warns that, “… dynamic features…cannot be predicted satisfactorily by linear mathematical models that disregard cooperativity and non-additive effects” (7). What exactly does this mean? Well, many mathematical models are reductionistic in nature, and while the models we create have exceptional predictability, they often fail to account for intersystem communication and methods of regulation such as epigenetics. An excessive reliance on these mathematical models may hinder our ability to progress in science. However, as these technologies continue to grow in use and as our understanding of their functionality increases, we may be able to learn to utilize these tools in different ways. 

Our body is not a mathematical model, nor even a series of ideal, interacting mathematical models. Constant interactions between different body systems mean that the reality is far from the ideal models. Regenmortel points out that this flaw in reductionist thinking accounts for why gene knockout experiments are relatively ineffective and why many drug companies encounter difficulties in getting their product to the market. As we increase our dependence on technology, we increase our reliance on mathematical models. The consequence is that these models penetrate vaccine development, drug development, and genetic studies, limiting our ability to see the big picture. Vaccine development is often hampered because we cannot account for the incredible variability in the body, drug development does not account for the interconnectedness of homeostatic mechanisms, and gene knockout experiments mainly examine idealized conditions and have long ignored traits with multiple associated genes (7). It is important to note that mathematical models do have their place: without these models, the existence of COVID-19 vaccines would be impossible as we would not be able to assess critical variables like incubation period and rate of cases.. However, reductionism often generates limiting perspectives that can inadvertently bias one’s perspective, and this is something that the scientific community needs to be wary of. 

Another problem with reductionism is that it leads to a denial of anthropomorphism, which may be a useful teaching tool. Anthropomorphism is the designation of human characteristics in the description of non-human items, such as describing two molecules that are “attracted” to one another (8). Critics of anthropomorphism believe that it complicates phenomena which are considered to be fundamentally chemical or physical by reductionists, rendering behavior-based comparisons inaccurate or misleading. A reductionist may argue that if someone describes a virus as “invading” the body, people may be misled to believe that viral activity is a conscious choice by the virus, complicating the actual chemical behavior of a virus. Another valid criticism is that  much of the language we use in anthropomorphization is based on Western thought, creating further obstacles to inclusivity in a global scientific community (9). However, anthropomorphism isn’t universally denounced. 

Charles Darwin, for example, used many anthropomorphic analogies (though he never labelled it as such). In his book The Expression of Emotions of Man and Animal, he identified similarities between human behavior and those of animals, essentially aligning himself with the ascent from fish to man(10). 

In fact,  anthropomorphism might not be as sinful as many portray it to be. In our COVID-infested landscape, anthropomorphism has been used to improve the efficacy of scientific communication. This is something Japan has put into practice, using cartoon characters to advocate adherence to public health measures (11). While it is anthropomorphic and may be “cheapening” the true science, in a public health setting it has a very important role in communicating the most important information effectively. In a world with increasing amounts of information (and misinformation), this kind of clear communication is key to saving lives. 

At the end of the day, however, anthropomorphism is really what many psychologists refer to as a “frugal heuristic,” or a cheap, accessible way in which we can understand and assimilate information about the world around us. Sure, anthropomorphism does have its place if we are cautious and distinguishing, but we might be engaging in another, more harmful form of reductionism by being anthropomorphic. We risk reducing everything we study to the human baseline and fail to acknowledge the possibility of a world beyond ourselves (12).

It is clear that reductionism and anthropomorphism have their shortcomings, but they have served as a scientific yin and yang that have catalyzed much of our scientific understanding. Without anthropomorphism, we would not have achieved the incredible technological advancements that we have, such as making machines that imitate humans (13). The reductionist philosophy has also enabled tremendous progress in extending the human lifespan and developing life-saving medications. However, we do not want to be an example of insularity by continuing to rely solely on anthropomorphism or reductionism, as this may be hindering our progress.

Science is embracing the stray away from such siloed thinking, as evidenced by the growing popularity of integrative medicine and other similarly-structured fields.  But ultimately, the practice of scientific inquiry is a balancing act. People cannot go to their osteopath for all of their ailments, likewise, they should not go to a dermatologist for their chronic fatigue. This analogy extends to science, too, in that we need all viewpoints: anthropomorphic, holistic, emergent, and reductionist to constantly engage in conversation. Each of these make important contributions to our understanding of science, but all have their unique time and place that needs to be respected. 


Illustration Credit: Natalie Madrigal