The Science of Biology

Lesson Content

Inquire: Biology as a Science


Science attempts to describe and understand the nature of the universe, in whole or in part, by rational means. Science has many fields; those fields related to the physical world and its phenomena are considered natural sciences. Biology is the science that studies living organisms and their interactions with one another and their environments.

Science can be basic or applied. The main goal of basic science is to expand knowledge without any expectation of short-term practical application. The primary goal of applied research, however, is to solve practical problems.


Big Question

What is biology?

Read: The Science of Biology


What is biology? Generally, biology is the study of living organisms and their interactions with one another and their environments. This is a very broad definition because biology has a wide scope. Biologists may study anything from microscopic or submicroscopic views of a cell to ecosystems and the whole living planet.

Introduction to Biology

Viewed from space, Earth offers no clues about the diversity of life forms that reside there. The first forms of life on Earth are thought to have been microorganisms that existed for billions of years in the ocean before plants and animals appeared. The mammals, birds, and flowers familiar to us are all relatively recent, originating 130 to 200 million years ago. Humans have inhabited this planet for only the last 2.5 million years, and only in the last 200,000 years have humans looked like we do today.

The Science of Biology

DecorativeListening to the daily news, you will quickly realize that many aspects of biology are discussed every day. For example, recent news topics include Escherichia coli (commonly known as e-coli) outbreaks in spinach and salmonella contamination in peanut butter. Other subjects include efforts toward finding cures for AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. On a global scale, many researchers are committed to finding ways to protect the planet, solve environmental issues, and reduce the effects of climate change. These diverse endeavors are all related to different facets of the biology discipline.

The Process of Science

Biology is a science, but what exactly is science? What does the study of biology share with other scientific disciplines? Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) can be defined as knowledge that covers general truths, or the operation of general laws, especially when acquired and tested by the scientific method. Consequently, the application of the scientific method plays a major role in science. The scientific method is a method of research with defined steps that include experiments and careful observation.

One of the most important aspects of the scientific method is the testing of hypotheses by means of repeatable experiments. A hypothesis is a suggested explanation for an event, which can be tested. Although using the scientific method is inherent to science, it is inadequate in determining what science is. This is because the scientific method can easily be applied to disciplines such as physics and chemistry, but when it comes to disciplines like archaeology, psychology, and geology, the scientific method becomes less applicable, as it becomes more difficult to repeat experiments.

These areas of study are still sciences. Consider archeology — even though one cannot perform repeatable experiments, hypotheses may still be supported. For instance, an archeologist can hypothesize that an ancient culture existed based on finding a piece of pottery. Further hypotheses could be made about various characteristics of this culture, and these hypotheses may be found to be correct or false through continued support or contradictions from other findings.

Through additional experiments and findings, a hypothesis may become a verified theory. A scientific theory is a tested and confirmed explanation for observations or phenomena. Science may be better defined as fields of study that attempt to comprehend the nature of the universe.

Natural Sciences

What would you expect to see in a natural sciences museum? Frogs? Plants? Dinosaur skeletons? Exhibits about how the brain functions? A planetarium? Gems and minerals? Or, maybe all of the above?

Science includes diverse fields, such as astronomy, biology, computer sciences, geology, logic, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. However, the science fields related to the physical world and its phenomena and processes are considered natural sciences. Thus, a natural sciences museum might contain any of the items listed in the opening example. The other branches of science deal with technology, mathematics, and social sciences such as psychology and anthropology.

There is no consensus of what the natural sciences include; however, for some experts, the natural sciences are astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics. Other scholars choose to divide the natural sciences into two further classifications: life sciences, which study living things and include biology, and physical sciences, which study nonliving matter and include astronomy, geology, physics, and chemistry. Some disciplines, such as biophysics and biochemistry, are interdisciplinary because they build on both life sciences and physical sciences.

DecorativeNot surprisingly, the natural science of biology has many branches, or subdisciplines. Cell biologists study cell structure and function, while biologists who study anatomy investigate the structure of an entire organism. Biologists studying physiology, however, focus on the internal functioning of an organism. Some areas of biology focus on only particular types of living things. For example, botanists explore plants, while zoologists specialize in animals.

Reflect: It’s Your Turn


If you had to be a scientist, what type of science would you study based on what you know now about natural science and biology?

Expand: Basic and Applied Science

Two Types of Science: Basic Science and Applied Science

For the last few decades, the scientific community has been debating the value of different types of scientific pursuits. Is it valuable to investigate science for the sake of simply gaining knowledge, or does scientific knowledge only have worth if it is applied to solving a specific problem or to bettering lives? This question focuses on the differences between two types of science: basic science and applied science.

Basic science, or “pure” science, seeks to expand knowledge, regardless of its short-term applications. It is not focused on developing a product or a service of immediate public or commercial value. The immediate goal of basic science is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, though this does not mean that, in the end, it may not result in a practical application.

In contrast, applied science or “technology,” aims to use science to solve real-world problems, making it possible, for example, to improve a crop yield, find a cure for a particular disease, or save animals threatened by a natural disaster. In applied science, the problem is usually defined for the researcher.

DecorativeSome individuals may perceive applied science as “useful” and basic science as “useless.” Such thinkers might ask a scientist advocating for knowledge acquisition, “What for?” A careful look at the history of science, however, reveals that basic knowledge has resulted in many remarkable applications of great value. Many scientists think a basic understanding of science is necessary before an application is developed; therefore, applied science relies on the results generated through basic science. Other scientists believe it is time to move on from basic science and instead focus on finding solutions to actual problems. Both approaches are valid. It is true that there are problems that demand immediate attention; however, few solutions would be found without help from the wide knowledge foundation generated through basic science.

Relationship Between Basic and Applied Science

Basic science and applied science can work together to solve practical problems. One example occurred when the discovery of DNA structure led to an understanding of the molecular mechanisms governing DNA replication. Strands of DNA, unique in every human, are found in our cells, where they provide the instructions necessary for life. During DNA replication, DNA copies itself shortly before a cell divides. Understanding the mechanisms of DNA replication enabled scientists to develop laboratory techniques that are now used to identify genetic diseases, pinpoint individuals who were at a crime scene, and determine paternity. Without basic science, it is unlikely that applied science would even exist!

Luck? The Discovery of Penicillin

While both basic science and applied science research efforts are usually carefully planned, it is important to note that some discoveries are made by means of a fortunate accident or a lucky surprise. Penicillin was discovered when biologist Alexander Fleming accidentally left a petri dish of Staphylococcus bacteria open. An unwanted mold grew on the dish, killing the bacteria. The mold turned out to be Penicillium, and a new antibiotic was discovered. Even in the highly organized world of science, luck — when combined with an observant, curious mind — can lead to unexpected breakthroughs.

Check Your Knowledge

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Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Introduction to Biology Video

A short introduction to biology

Science Magazine

A magazine that reports on current biology headlines in the news

Science History Institute

An article on the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming

What Can You Do With A Biology Degree?

An article discussing the typical, and less typical, career opportunities for college students that major in biology

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • applied science
    a form of science that aims to solve real-world problems
  • basic science
    (or pure science); a form of science that seeks to expand knowledge and understanding regardless of short-term applications
  • biology
    the study of living organisms and their interactions with one another and their environments
  • hypothesis
    a proposed explanation for a phenomena that is then tested in a scientific experiment
  • life sciences
    field of science including biology, that studies living things
  • natural sciences
    the science fields related to the physical world and its phenomena and processes
  • physical sciences
    field of science, including geology, astronomy, physics, and chemistry, that studies nonliving matter
  • science
    knowledge that covers general truths or the operation of general laws, especially when acquired and tested by the scientific method
  • scientific method
    method of research with defined steps that include observation, formulation of a hypothesis, testing, and confirming or falsifying the hypothesis
  • scientific theory
    tested and confirmed explanation of natural phenomenon using research over an extended period of time

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jill Carson for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: Biology – The Scientific Method; Two Types of Science: Basic Science and Applied Science; Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

Decorativebiology clinic doctorPixabayPexelsCC 0
DecorativeSyringe Technician PharmacySkeezePixabayCC 0
DecorativeService botanist Mara Alexander taking a water sampleU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast RegionWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeLooking through a microscopeLinda BartlettWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain