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Modularity and emergence: biology’s challenge in understanding life


  • Editor
    H. Rennenberg

U. Lüttge, Department of Biology, Technical University of Darmstadt, TUD, Schnittspahn-Str. 3-5, 64287 Darmstadt, Germany.


This essay juxtaposes modularity and emergence in the consideration of biological systems at various scalar levels of spatio-temporal organisation. It is noted that reductionism, specialisation and modularity are basic prerequisites for understanding life. It is realised that increased progress of scientific biology in elucidating mechanisms at the level of modular components supports the accusation that the more it advances in materialistic description of details, the more it diverts from understanding the innate properties of life. It is clear that modularity, by taking the whole as the sum of its parts, is insufficient for understanding living systems. At the same time, however, there is emergence, as advocated by Robert Laughlin. Emergence after the integration of modules leads to completely new properties of individual organisms as unique unitary entities, and also of systems of organisms with synergistic and antagonistic interactions of the integrated species. The discussion is predominantly based on examples from plant biology. At hierarchically higher scalar levels emergent biological systems are networks integrating species, biotopes, ecosystems and the entire biosphere of Earth, also named Gaia by James Lovelock, in a natural scientific respect. While investigating modules remains essential, biology as a nature science needs to merge and integrate such information to be able to unfold emergence. Through efforts towards visualising and understanding emergent diversity and complexity, the research discipline of biology will provide invaluable contributions to understanding life, and thus refute the accusation that it diverts from embracing the innate properties of life.