One of the best talks I have listened to on reductionism and complex biological systems.

This is hands down one of the most if not the most thought provoking lecture I have ever come across on Non-linear Chaotic Systems. Highly recommend it to anyone regardless of domain, but particularly those interested in biological and behavioural sciences. Professor Robert Sapolsky out of Stanford University does a fantastic job in explaining how complex biological systems require a whole other explanatory system (i.e. fractal) than that of reductionism, which can mistakenly exclude variability as "noise" when it is actually part of the chaotic phenomenon.

Before watching the lecture, it is important to understand what's meant by reductionism or reductive approaches to scientific enquiry. In the domain of biological sciences, reductionism is defined in accordance to ontological (i.e. the nature of being), methodological and epistemic (i.e. our degree of knowledge) perspectives. Beresford (2010)* (highly recommended reading) defines each as follows:

* Ontological reductionism - "the idea that each system is constituted by nothing but molecules and their interactions and also establishes a hierarchy of chemical, biological and physical properties."

* Methodological reductionism - "the idea that biological systems are most fruitfully investigated at the lowest possible level."

* Epistemic reductionism - "suggests that knowledge of a higher domain can be always reduced down to a lower more fundamental level."

The reason why I am so interested in this form of philosophical thinking is because I love science, and I also love practice. Unfortunately, to meet reliability requirements as well as to serve the limits of human understanding, scientific enquiry is obliged to be reductionist. As a result, and this is particularly true in the domain of sports medicine and sciences, much of the academic consensuses often do not hold true in the practical setting. Sports performance, injuries, psycho-emotional function, neuro-physiological and physical adaptations to training, etc. are governed by complex, chaotic, non-linear and non-periodic mechanisms operating simultaneously and as a network, so it may be impossible to predict certain outcomes accurately. Ultimately, multi-factorial problems often require an integration of perspectives and mechanisms of action (see Integrative Pluralism by Sandra Mitchell); and with this said, reductionism may distort (not always) our understanding of reality, especially in complex non-linear environments !

I can't serve this fantastic lecture any justice by continuing to write about this highly complex topic (pun intended), so I'll leave you with a quote from Professor Sapolsky's lecture below:

"Reductive approaches can be used to fix clocks, reductive approaches can't be used to understand why clouds don't rain. And the whole point of all chaos and these lectures here is that when you look at the interesting complex biological systems they're clouds, they're not clocks..."

(Sapolsky, 2011)

WARNING ⚠️ - if you're going to start watching the lecture, make sure you WATCH IT ALL !!!

...It will make you a better thinker by the end of it...



  1. Beresford, Mark. (2010). Medical reductionism: Lessons from the great philosophers. QJM : monthly journal of the Association of Physicians. 103. 721-4. 10.1093/qjmed/hcq057.

  2. Mitchell, S. D. (2002). Integrative pluralism. Biology and Philosophy, 17(1), 55-70.


Find the author

Instagram: @___Adriano