The interactions between mathematics and biology at present follow from their interactions over the last half millennium. The discovery of the New World by Europeans approximately 500 years ago—and of its many biological species not described in religious Scriptures—gave impetus to major conceptual progress in biology.
The outstanding milestone in the early history of biological quantitation was the work of William Harvey, Exercitatio Anatomica De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis In Animalibus (An Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals) (Harvey 1847), first published in 1628. Harvey's demonstration that the blood circulates was the pivotal founding event of the modern interaction between mathematics and biology. His elegant reasoning is worth understanding.
From the time of the ancient Greek physician Galen (131–201 C.E.) until William Harvey studied medicine in Padua (1600–1602, while Galileo was active there), it was believed that there were two kinds of blood, arterial blood and venous blood. Both kinds of blood were believed to ebb and flow under the motive power of the liver, just as the tides of the earth ebbed and flowed under the motive power of the moon. Harvey became physician to the king of England. He used his position of privilege to dissect deer from the king's deer park as well as executed criminals. Harvey observed that the veins in the human arm have one-way valves that permit blood to flow from the periphery toward the heart but not in the reverse direction. Hence the theory that the blood ebbs and flows in both veins and arteries could not be correct.
Harvey also observed that the heart was a contractile muscle with one-way valves between the chambers on each side. He measured the volume of the left ventricle of dead human hearts and found that it held about two ounces (about 60 ml), varying from 1.5 to three ounces in different individuals. He estimated that at least one-eighth and perhaps as much as one-quarter of the blood in the left ventricle was expelled with each stroke of the heart. He measured that the heart beat 60–100 times per minute. Therefore, the volume of blood expelled from the left ventricle per hour was about 60 ml × 1/8 × 60 beats/minute × 60 minutes/hour, or 27 liters/hour. However, the average human has only 5.5 liters of blood (a quantity that could be estimated by draining a cadaver). Therefore, the blood must be like a stage army that marches off one side of the stage, returns behind the scenes, and reenters from the other side of the stage, again and again. The large volume of blood pumped per hour could not possibly be accounted for by the then-prevalent theory that the blood originated from the consumption of food. Harvey inferred that there must be some small vessels that conveyed the blood from the outgoing arteries to the returning veins, but he was not able to see those small vessels. His theoretical prediction, based on his meticulous anatomical observations and his mathematical calculations, was spectacularly confirmed more than half a century later when Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694) saw the capillaries under a microscope. Harvey's discovery illustrates the enormous power of simple, off-the-shelf mathematics combined with careful observation and clear reasoning. It set a high standard for all later uses of mathematics in biology.
Mathematics was crucial in the discovery of genes by Mendel (Orel 1984) and in the theory of evolution. Mathematics was and continues to be the principal means of integrating evolution and genetics since the classic work of R. A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and S. Wright in the first half of the 20th century (Provine 2001).
Over the last 500 years, mathematics has made amazing progress in each of its three major fields: geometry and topology, algebra, and analysis. This progress has enriched all the biological sciences.
In 1637, René Descartes linked the featureless plane of Greek geometry to the symbols and formulas of Arabic algebra by imposing a coordinate system (conventionally, a horizontal x-axis and a vertical y-axis) on the geometric plane and using numbers to measure distances between points. If every biologist who plotted data on x–y coordinates acknowledged the contribution of Descartes to biological understanding, the key role of mathematics in biology would be uncontested.
Another highlight of the last five centuries of geometry was the invention of non-Euclidean geometries (1823–1830). Shocking at first, these geometries unshackled the possibilities of mathematical reasoning from the intuitive perception of space. These non-Euclidean geometries have made significant contributions to biology in facilitating, for example, mapping the brain onto a flat surface (Hurdal et al. 1999; Bowers and Hurdal 2003).
In algebra, efforts to find the roots of equations led to the discovery of the symmetries of roots of equations and thence to the invention of group theory, which finds routine application in the study of crystallographic groups by structural biologists today. Generalizations of single linear equations to families of simultaneous multi-variable linear equations stimulated the development of linear algebra and the European re-invention and naming of matrices in the mid-19th century. The use of a matrix of numbers to solve simultaneous systems of linear equations can be traced back in Chinese mathematics to the period from 300 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. (in a work by Chiu Chang Suan Shu called Nine Chapters of the Mathematical Art; Smoller 2001). In the 19th century, matrices were considered the epitome of useless mathematical abstraction. Then, in the 20th century, it was discovered, for example, that the numerical processes required for the cohort-component method of population projection can be conveniently summarized and executed using matrices (Keyfitz 1968). Today the use of matrices is routine in agencies responsible for making official population projections as well as in population-biological research on human and nonhuman populations (Caswell 2001).
Finally, analysis, including the calculus of Newton and Leibniz and probability theory, is the line between ancient thought and modern thought. Without an understanding of the concepts of analysis, especially the concept of a limit, it is not possible to grasp much of modern science, technology, or economic theory. Those who understand the calculus, ordinary and partial differential equations, and probability theory have a way of seeing and understanding the world, including the biological world, that is unavailable to those who do not.
Conceptual and scientific challenges from biology have enriched mathematics by leading to innovative thought about new kinds of mathematics. Table 1 lists examples of new and useful mathematics arising from problems in the life sciences broadly construed, including biology and some social sciences. Many of these developments blend smoothly into their antecedents and later elaborations. For example, game theory has a history before the work of John von Neumann (von Neumann 1959; von Neumann and Morgenstern 1953), and Karl Pearson's development of the correlation coefficient (Pearson and Lee 1903) rested on earlier work by Francis Galton (1889).
Table 1. Mathematics Arising from Biological Problems