Sunday, May 22, 2005

Pigeonholes

Everyone is familiar with the increasing divisions and compartmentalization of the sciences that occurred as they went through school. In grade school, we were taught Science; in high school we took Physics, Chemistry, and Biology; at the university we could major in Aquatic Biology, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Microbiology, Zoology . . .

And then, for those who went on to do professional science, they got jobs as Biochemical Phycologists, Mammalian Physiologists, Evolutionary Developmental Biologists, and so on. This partitioning of science would appear to be an example of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny*. Once, every man who fancied himself a scientist dabbled at some point in all branches of the field, as children still can do today. Now, at every research institution you can hear scientists prefacing their statements with:

"I'm no evolutionary biologist, but . . ."
"Speaking as a molecular geneticist . . ."

What happened to the days when we were all naturalists? I really like that term, <i>naturalist</i>. It brings to mind great, adventurous people like Charles Darwin and John Doolittle. (Yes, the latter is fictional. So what?) People who traveled from continent to continent, collecting samples of animals, plants, soil, analyzing them on site, pockets bulging with magnifying glasses, preserving chemicals, glassine envelopes, notebooks and pens. People whom you could ask about any aspect of natural history whatsoever.

The problem is the seemingly infinite, fractal complexity of Nature. The more we know at one scale, the more openings we see down to the next scale, and still more the next, so that as we painstakingly add to the body of scientific knowledge, it seems that all we are doing is adding holes to be filled. Thus you may start out wondering why the sea hare lives where it does, and begin to examine the distribution of the algae it eats, and then, seeking to explain the algal distribution, you find the algae is suited to particular salinities, an inclination which must be due to its physiology, which is in turn defined by its cellular structure... before you know it, fifty years have passed and you have become an expert on Phycological Cellular Physiology, and you don't remember what a <a href=http://www.brembs.net/learning/aplysia/aplysia.html>sea hare</a> is.

Henry David Thoreau writes, "Where is this division of laber to end? and what purpose does it finally serve?" He is talking about architecture, not science, and fervently arguing that men should build their own houses, rather than do as the cuckoo does and live in another's nest.

While there is a certain romantic appeal to the idea of building one's own house, just as there is to being a naturalist, perhaps in this modern day neither is any longer practical, or, for that matter, practicable. I should like to borrow Thoreau's idea of building in order to make the opposite argument; that we are engaged in the highest sort of architecture by building upon one another's ideas rather than (to be cliche) reinventing the wheel. Ideas naturally lead to other ideas, and experiments to further experiments. If a single naturalist worked alone, and attempted to follow at a time all these leads and branching paths, how slow would be his progress! If, on the other hand, he may devote himself to the one which holds the most interest for him, while his fellows may borrow his previous work to begin their own work, how swiftly will each man become specialized and how speedy will be their progress.

However, I allow that this specialization will quickly become a hindrance if they lose contact with one another, or do not put in the effort to understand all the work that has gone before. Even if a man has his house built for him, he would do well to know at the least what part to stand in, in the event of an earthquake.

No matter how specialized one's field, it seems not only desirable, but necessary, that a researcher be able to see where the research fits into Nature as a whole. Maintaining this broad perspective, I think, will keep one from loving the work for its own sake and worshiping the techniques, which is something that is easy to fall into, especially with some of the very complex molecular techniques out there. No doubt they are very beautiful in themselves, but they are meant to be tools for answering questions about the world around us. Having in mind the connection between one's own work and the world at hand is also an enormous aid in explaining said work to family, friends, and public.

This broaches another aspect of specialization, namely, that friends, family, and public often desire and expect all scientists to be The Scientist, diversely knowledgeable. Thus, in addition to maintaining some breadth for the sake of personal housekeeping, it becomes necessary to retain that high school Chemistry, Physics, and Biology which everyone else who entered more sensible careers has had the privilege of forgetting, because they will ask you about it. While your mother may be aware that you are a Phycological Cellular Physiologist, that won't stop her from expecting you to know why the human body needs vitamin D, or how bubbles form in boiling water.

And I feel that there is a certain obligation, for those of us who have been lucky enough to remain in school indefinitely, not to forget what we have learned, not to lose breadth in pursuit of depth, and to retain the sense of adventure and the connection with Nature felt by children studying Science in elementary school--and by Darwin and Dr. Doolittle.


* "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" was a theory proposed by Ernst Haeckel in the mid 1800's. He claimed that the development of an organism from egg to adult illustrates the evolutionary history of that species over time, as the embryo passes through stages resembling all of its ancestors. Famous example: "gill slits" in human embryos. Neat idea, but it's been mostly discredited, although there are certainly some interesting connections between ontogeny and phylogeny. This, incidentally, is happening to theories in biology ALL THE TIME, and leads me to formulate a Theory of Publication, to wit:

There are two ways to publish big, important papers.
1. Make a broad, sweeping generalization that synthesizes diverse sets of data.
2. Gather more data to show that said generalization is in fact an oversimplification of a very complex system. Because if there's one thing that we consistently keep showing about biology, it's complexity.

The Theory of Publication is, of course, an oversimplication.

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