What is Theoretical Biology?
Theoretical Biology at the University of Bonn

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Theoretical Biology searches to discover characteristic principles of order within the variety of biological phenomena by describing the organizational dynamics of living systems in a formal way. In addition to a more profound understanding of single phenomena, it has brought about new starting points in the search for answers to the most fundamental questions in biology: What is life? How did the organisms evolve? How to explain the tremendous complexity and variety of living systems?

Theoretical Biology is rooted in the times of the Enlightenment. However, it started to prosper only in this century. At the beginning, Johannes Reinke, Julius Schaxel, and Jakob von Uexküll formulated the concept of Theoretical Biology for the first time. In the twenties and thirties, Fisher, Haldane, Lotka, Volterra, v. Bertalanffy, and others founded the modern type of a mathematically oriented Theoretical Biology by developing population genetics, population ecology, and general systems theory. Nowadays, it has infiltrated almost every field in biology.

Despite of being independent, Theoretical Biology stays in intimate dialogue with experimental biological research. However, in contrast to the latter it uses mathematics as its language and computers as the most important tools - very similar to Theoretical Physics, which gave some important impulses during its development. By allowing simulations, computers help to understand very complex processes, intuitively, thus complementing the mathematical analysis of simplified models. In addition, philosophical and epistemological questions are investigated in Theoretical Biology. The precise definition of biological terms and the characterization of cognition by using formal systems, in general, are fundamental tasks of Theoretical Biology now and in future.

Theoretical Biology is naturally interdisciplinary. It draws ideas from other disciplines and, in reverse, supports them by quantification and precision. Therefore, it is on the way to become a general and extensive structural science of organized systems, which might be able to point out similarities between the organization of physico-chemical, biological, economical, and social systems.

At the University of Bonn the Theoretical Biology has existed as a subdepartment (of the Botanical Institute resp. IZMB) for 26 years, from 1986 to 2012. It was an examination subject for diploma in biology as well as for PhD at the Science Faculty and is now suceeded by the new subject Computational Life Sciences.

25 years of Theoretical Biology at Bonn University (pdf)
Special issue No. 14 of ECMTB (pdf)