In a lecture at the Royal Institution in London, Nobel Prize-winning biologist Sir Paul Nurse said that, on the whole, biologists tend to leave grand ideas and theories to physicists and concentrate more on details. "What we like to do is count things and list things," Nurse said, adding that a 19th century biologist might count the numbers of hairs on a beetle's leg, while an ecologist might count and list the number and type of species in a habitat and a molecular biologist would sequence genes and count the numbers of proteins and RNAs in a cell. But biology also has great ideas, Nurse said. His lecture, presented in a series of videos at The Guardian, concentrates on five of these ideas — the cell, the gene, natural selection, life as chemistry, and biology as an organized system, the latter of which, he added, has "yet to be fully formulated."
In his lecture on the gene, Nurse started with Gregor Mendel and his peas and traced how that one idea gave rise to heredity, James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of the double helix, and to what is now known about the genome. The idea of the gene as the basis of heredity can explain the link between genotype and phenotype, he said, adding, "It has tremendous implications for what we are."