In an interview with Tim Hunt, Hunt makes the following comment:

There are some people nowadays who think you can sort of model everything on a computer. But I'm not one of those. I don't think anyone has actually discovered anything modeling something on the computer because there are so many different way of doing things...how Nature herself actually chose to do it.

The claim starts at 4'25'' in the link interview.

Have biological simulations ever led to biological discoveries? What purpose have they served?

  • $\begingroup$ I think this question is too broad and open-ended, and probably somewhat opinion-based in terms of what "discovery" means - though I'm open to a difference of opinion. As a neuroscientist, I'd say I definitely disagree with the idea that no one has actually discovered anything by modeling, but I also agree that there is a good deal of misinformation about what modeling can actually do, which leads to silly arguments for example from animal rights groups that imply scientists study animals just to torture them because they should be able to do everything on a computer... $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 18, 2017 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think the question is so specific to Biology but rather to the use of numerical modelling in science in general. IMO, the question is off-topic here and should rather be asked on [Philosoiphy.SE](philosophy.stackexchange.com). $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Jun 19, 2017 at 0:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Beware of people speaking outside their expertise, modeling is difficult in cellular mechanics becasue we only know a small fraction of what is going on and our current computers cannot even handle all of that at once. Of course protein structure prediction is fairly important modeling, which he studied, so he should still know better. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 19, 2017 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is an appropriate question for biology and also I think that asking this question of biology is different from asking it of other scientific disciplines because there are many more data points in biology than there often are in, say, physics. Physics simulations could involve mere handfuls of atoms. Biological simulations would be more complex. $\endgroup$
    – sterid
    Jun 19, 2017 at 4:17
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    $\begingroup$ Personally, I have not used computer simulations to "discover" but I've used them to identify which of the ideas I've developed a priori are possible. $\endgroup$
    – sterid
    Jun 19, 2017 at 4:28

1 Answer 1


In my opinion, this question is a question of philosophy of science, not Biology but here are my thoughts anyway.

Science by definition is a methodology that requires the creation of a hypothesis under a specific model and testing the prediction of this particular hypothesis.

Such modelling can be done either analytically (math) or numerically (with a computer). Typically, numerical modelling is being used when there the mathematical tools fail to offer a solution for the system analyzed. To me rejecting, numerical modelling is like rejecting modelling and is therefore like rejecting the scientific method altogether.

Computational modelling has brought a lot in pretty much any field of biology (and pretty much any field of science), so much so that it is hard to know where to start to fully address this claim. There are many models that were only verbal as mathematical tools were not sufficient to bring more quantitative predictions. For many of these models, computer modelling could offer quantitative predictions that could then be further tested.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Remi - congratz on reaching the #1 rep! Well done, mate :) $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Jun 26, 2017 at 8:39
  • $\begingroup$ @AliceD Ha ha Thank you! I might not stay in this position for long as Chris and you are pretty close. The three highest reputed users are very close. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Jun 26, 2017 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ You're really gaining a lot of rep and you should be, as you're writing up a lot of good stuff. I'm hardly gaining any rep these days now I'm (pro-tem) mod on two sites :-) $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Jun 26, 2017 at 18:03

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