Key Ideas, Central Dogma and Educational Philosophy
Life is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon.
Although the study of living
things dates at least as far back as Aristotle, the advent of tools which allow the
interrogation of living systems in molecular detail and genomic breadth makes
this a particularly exciting era in the history of biology.
The purpose of this
course is to help you begin to understand and appreciate our growing
understanding of what living things are, what they do, and how they do it.
It is perhaps the holistic nature of the subject matter that makes creating an
accessible introduction biology so difficult.
Understanding any aspect of living
things can seem to require understanding of dozens of other aspects.
no easy place to begin, no simple set of problems that can be grasped in
isolation as a prelude to deeper understanding.
A key goal of the course is to
impart enough knowledge about enough different aspects of life to provide a
for more detailed understanding of the particulars.
Much of what
we will cover is a description of what and how biologists study, rather than the
detailed results of those studies.
You will learn some of the vocabulary of
biology, and some of the major ideas, which ought to be enough so that it is
possible for you to comprehend more detailed works.
The study of life is really
many studies: evolution, biochemistry, genetics, pathology
just to name a few.
We will touch on many of these topics, with an emphasis
on biological molecules and their relevance to human health.
One of the metaphors that we will use extensively in this course is learning
biology is akin to learning a foreign language.
This metaphor works at many
First, there is an extensive specialized vocabulary that biologists use to
characterize living systems and their properties.
In order to be able to
understand the biological literature, it is crucial that students learn these terms
and how they are used.
As you will see later on, language is also a useful
metaphor for understanding the structure and function of
biological systems at
the molecular level.
The “book of life” is an apt and useful idea.
We will treat learning the language of life the way one might learn a foreign
Each week there will be a set of biological terms which you will be
responsible for learning.
These terms will be highlighted in the course notes,
and available in list form on the web site.
Also like a foreign language course,
you will be responsible not only for knowing what the words mean, but how
they are used in context.
Vocabulary tests will make up a substantial portion of
the weekly problem sets.
Learning a foreign language involves more than just
Languages are an intimate part of cultures, so, for example,
learning French generally involves learning something about French culture as
well as French words.
Likewise in biology.
Biologists approach scientific
problems somewhat differently than physicists, chemists, and other colleagues,