Thursday, July 14, 2005

Battle of the Biologies

There is a long-standing tradition of separating the biology department at institutions of higher learning in twain. Insiders generally refer to the two halves as mole/cell and eco/evo. The former has nothing to do with moles, star-nosed or naked; the abbreviations stand for Molecular/Cellular and Ecology/Evolution, respectively.

Of course, the distinction is not precisely the same at all universities. The departments at my undergraduate institution were Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology. The six biological disciplines thus represented could be lined up for a child's game of "which does not belong?" and many biologists would probably pick Marine Biology as the odd one out. None of the other five disciplines specify a study system--there is no Alpine Biology, or Interstitial* Biology.

My current institution appears to be equally poor at basic kindergarten skills, for their Biosciences department is separated into Cell, Molecular, Developmental, and Plant Biology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Plants are an excellent and admirable system in which to address all kinds of biological questions, from the cellular to the evolutionary, but I fail to see how they merit explicit mention in the titles here given.

But I digress. I wish to address the existence of this dichotomy at all, and discuss its merits and abuses. First, some web-surfing has provided additional substance to my argument for its existence:

Harvard: Molecular and Cellular Biology + Organismic and Evolutionary Biology
Yale: Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology + Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
UC Berkeley: Molecular and Cell Biology + Integrative Biology

(Said web-surfing has also, I confess, provided several somewhat more complex divisions, which are equally interesting to me and which I hope to explore further at a later time.)

This division is played out on the academic stage with more or less animosity, depending on the players, but there can be no doubt that there are two strongly separated camps of biology. They tend to have different mailing lists, different seminars, different funding, and often very different outlooks on science and life. The stereotypes: Mole/cell biologists are narrow-minded, technique-obsessed fly-counters and yeast-spreaders**, driven by medical funding, with no interest in the big picture and no grasp of how life works in the real world. Meanwhile, eco/evo biologists are tree-hugging, touchy-feely, pot-smoking hippies who failed chemistry and use science as an excuse to hike in the rainforest and dive in the tropics.

The truth? Well, there's a reason we know much more about the ecology of tropical than polar regions. Biologists are not stupid.

Seriously, though, there are unquestionable differences in technique and perspective due to differences in training. If you want to study cells but haven't been exposed to the enormous variety of techniques available, it's a lot of work to play catch-up and learn what the cellular biologists mean when they suggest you try polyclonal antibody staining or FISH. Conversely, if you haven't taken a full Evolution course and done reading on evolutionary theory, it's difficult to make accurate statements about evolution even in the simplest context.

These differences cannot be avoided, nor need they be. The lamentable aspect of the schism lies in the not infrequent refusal of parties on either side to show any appreciation for the work done by their colleagues in the Other Half of Biology. That you may not understand it, is to be expected. That it may not even interest you, can be forgiven. But that you may despise and ridicule it, for shame! Have we no common decency nor respect?

Saddest of all, I feel, is that by closing their eyes to developments in fields other than their own, a number of excellent scientists lose the potential for excellent collaborations, for new insights into their own work based on a completely different perspective. Sometimes questions can be answered with techniques you never knew existed. This is why I'm so excited when I see people working on the ecology and evolution of Drosophila, or examining on a cellular level just which proteins allow mussels to live where they do.

And thus, returning to my home institution, I must applaud their relatively recent introduction of a third track within the Biosciences Department: Integrative/Organismal/Marine Biology. (Although I must also point out once again that One Of These Is Not Like The Others). Integrating biological studies from the very small (molecules and cells) to the very large (populations and ecosystems) lands us necessarily in the middle ground of whole organisms--the whole reason that most people, including myself, get interested in biology in the first place. We like critters! This "medium scale" has the added advantage of being on a human scale, making biology much more accessible to the layperson even as it serves as the bridge between the two academic disciplines into which biology has been split.

At least, that's the idea. It turns out that this track is having an identity crisis, and isn't really sure what it means to be Integrative/Organismal. Consequently the few students it contains seem to go back to allying themselves with Mole/Cell or Eco/Evo, thereby propagating the split.

To be continued.

Which group of scientists presents more quantitative data? Which do you think uses more statistics to back it up? Tune in next time to find out the (maybe) surprising answers!


* Interstitial refers to the space between sediment grains. The organisms living in this space are referred to as the meiofauna. Included in the meiofauna are the ever-adorable water bears.

** Drosophila (fruit flies) and Saccharomyces (baker's yeast) are popular model organisms for molecular and cellular studies.

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