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Feynman writes, in his Lectures on Physics Vol. 1, Chapter 1:

The most important hypothesis in all of biology, for example, is that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, * there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics.* This was not known from the beginning, it took some theorizing to suggest this hypothesis, but now it is accepted and it is the most useful theory for producing new ideas in the field of biology.

He would have written this around 1961-1963. Was he right then and/or is he right now? Is what he says applicable for the entirety of biology (say evolutionary theories) or only for a subset of biology?

Would Feynman have been referring to a few specific advances or to the general state of biology at the time?

Please note that this question comes from an (interested) amateur to both physics and biology, I hope the question is appropriate for this site.

Edit: Perhaps this will clarify the intentions behind my question:

I would be interested to know how much atomic theory actually helps biological research. For instance, it often happens that the specific low level details are not necessarily important for explaining the high level theory. A nice example is abstract algorithms vs implementation in programming languages vs hardware implementation. Is this the case with biology or do the details of atomic theory matter? For instance, have advances in physics led directly to new biological discoveries?

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  • $\begingroup$ Did the original claim repeated In other words twice or is it a typo? $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Mar 10 '18 at 15:46
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Yes it is still true for all of biology, of course physics has expanded a bit, and likewise we have discovered cases of biology exploiting these new parts, for instance photosynthesis might involve quantum tunneling.

Feynman's quote basically restating that there is no magic or supernatural aspect to biology, no vital essence or spirit required to explain how it works or seperate living matter from non-living, it is all just chemistry and physics. The most complex chemical process ever discovered but still just chemistry and physics. Of course he does not mention chemistry becasue of course chemistry is just physics as well, the laws of physics control both, so saying it is a result of atoms obeying the laws of physics expresses both.

He is saying biology is still obeys the laws of physics and are made of atoms, this is true for all of biology, but as Feynman points out took some time to be accepted, keep in mind this is the time of the Miller–Urey experiment which showed organic molecules could form through entirely non-biotic means, which was not as widely accepted at the time as many think, especially to a general audience. Many similar discoveries a t the time were showing the same thing, there was nothing special about biological molecules or their interaction. things like evolution is the inevitable result of the interaction of basic properties (reproduction and heredity)just as a salt crystal is the inevitable result of the interaction of charge of sodium and chlorine. Vitalism still hung around in the popular mind and a few corners of academia at the time Feynman was growing up so taking a few moments to help dispel this notion in his lectures makes a lot of sense, especially given how much advancement was done by abandoning it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Feynman most definitely talks about chemistry. In fact, the title of the section that the quoted text comes from is, "1-4 Chemical reactions". I recommend you actually be familiar with the quoted work before speaking about it. Feyman Lectures, Vol. 1, Ch.1 $\endgroup$ – Charles Mar 10 '18 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ Also, the idea of being redundant by expressing a phenomenon from both and chemical and physical perspective, most definitely is not congruent with Feynman's mentality. There are literally dozens of video interviews where Feynman expresses the importance of interpreting a single event using several different contexts. He refers to this as "playing around with it". $\endgroup$ – Charles Mar 10 '18 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ @charles I have read it actually, and explaining what the quote means is important for understanding its application, you seem to be reading far too much into the quote. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 10 '18 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ Your last paragraph is the kind of thing I was looking for. I would also be interested to know how much atomic theory actually helps biological research. For instance, it often happens that the specific low level details are not necessarily important for explaining the high level theory. A nice example is abstract algorithms vs implementation in programming languages vs hardware implementation. Is this the case with biology or do the details of atomic theory matter? For instance, have advances in physics led directly to new biological discoveries? $\endgroup$ – Asvin Mar 10 '18 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ that is two separate questions which would be far better answered as there own formal questions. A formal questions they will also be educational for us all, as I suspect others will have farm more examples that i can provide. . $\endgroup$ – John Mar 11 '18 at 5:47

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