Preface to The Origins of Modern Biological Science

Preface

All children areborn biologists. Watch anychild between theagesof threeand six. Theyare fascinatedwith worms,bugs,frogs,and in factanything thatmoves.Theyalsoneed toclassify(“Isita boyor agirl?”)and understand whattheycan aboutit.Someof usneveroutgrowthatchildhood curiosityand fascination,and webecomethebiologists ofthisworld.Whywepersistin thisstunted stageof development—notoutgrowingour curiosity—is amatter for developmental psychologists,but a surprising numberof practicing adultscientistshad,aschildren,a nicknamesomething like “Questions”. Sometimesour parentshelp,toleratingand evenencouraging theincessantquestionsand vermin broughtintothehouse,asopposed totheparentwho,fatigued and exasperated,tellsachild “Stopbothering mewith your questions.”Butintheend,wesurvive,asking throughoutour liveswhat thingsare,howtheywork,whytheyarethewaytheyareand notsomething else,and howtheycame tobe.

Sometimesthesequestionslead tootherquestions:Whyothersdon’taskquestions;why peoplearguesoadamantlyagainstthetheoryof evolution,when todenyitmeansthatonehas todeny mostotherpartsof science,which theyreadilyaccept;and whywekeep trying toexplain whatwedo, onlytobetold thatwearegeeks,thematerial isboring,dull,incomprehensible,or yucky,and that “normal”peoplearenotsciencejunkies.

Therein liestheoriginof this book. On afacultycommitteereviewingour CoreCurriculum offerings,I describedmyfrustrationwithour typical“Biologyfor Non-Scientists”offerings:A watered downversionof thestandard textbook,raced through in a largeclass,withmultiple-choicetestsbased on isolated facts.“Whatwasin bold-facetypeon page432?” In other words, “Whocareswhetheryou can differentiate between theOrdovicianand Devonian?”wasthewayI characterized thetests:asurvey offacts unconnected toideas,theflowof historythrough science,theexplorationof ideas,thequestionsthat wereasked and theingeniouswayspeopleinvented toanswerthem:theheart of whatsciencewas.No wonderstudentswerebored withwhatweoffered. Iwanted toteacha courseabouttheideas,the questions,thequest. Not onlywould itbe moreinteresting,itwould betterpreparestudentsforthe developmentsthatweretocomein their lifetimes.

Sohowcould wedothis?Wehad totalkaboutaquestionof sufficientscopetoencompassall sortsofideas. Although myownresearch wasin developmental biology,the historyoftherecognition of evolution(or,better,natural selection)wasmoreencompassing. Notonlywasitthe mostimportant idea ofthe19th and probably 20th Centuries,itwas,insocialtermsatleast,asubjectof controversy, something thatcould alwayscatch theattentionofstudents. Onecould exploresuccessivelywhy, surprisingly,evolutionwasnotrecognized earlier in history,whatinformation graduallyaccumulated tomakeits recognition inevitable,howideaswere broached,challenged,tested,and confirmed orrefuted,the extenttowhichsocial attitudeshelpedor impeded understanding and sometimestragicallydistorted themeaningsofdiscoveries,wherewewere going,and whatlayin thefuture. Such a subjectcould reach fromself-evidentobservationssuch asthesimilaritiesand differencesamong animals tothe most abstruseand abstractconsiderationsofmolecularbiology,and itcould provideaforumin which studentscould evaluatetheconsequencesof currenttrends,including destruction of habitatand extinctionof speciesto global warming. In short,thiswould bea coursethatwould teach scienceas scientistssawit,arealmofquestionand meaning,and a subjectofimportancetoour speciesandour world.

That of coursewasawildlyoptimisticassumption. Somestudentsofcoursewereconfused by theapproach,preferring the(tome)much moreboring butpredictabledreary processionof namesand numbers,anecessaryandnot-expected-to-be-fulfilling drudgein which,given appropriatedirection, onecouldmemorizea sufficientnumberof bizarretermstopassthecourseand,none-the-worse,get on withlife. The standard offeringwasa coursetowhich studentsweresentenced,but myversion wasalsoa difficultcourse toreplicate.Manyotherwisecommendableteachersdid nothavetheexperiencetodrawanalogies between 16th Cpoetryand16th Cscientificdiscoveriesor between thetechnologyofexplorationand the developmentofevolutionarytheory,or wereuncomfortablestraying outsidetheboundariesdefined for thedisciplineof basicbiology. On the other hand,somestudents wereinspiredbythisapproach,and their responseencouragedmethatitwaspossibleto proselytizeforthescientificmethodand the scientificapproach tolife. The course became a book, which I and others used.[i] Ithereforeoffer thisversion asa lessdidactic,more open versionofwhatitis liketobea scientist,withthestoriesandanecdotes thatled,eventually,to our recognition thatweare of thisearth,with alltheaspirations,limitations,and potential hazardsof anyspecies. In a second book[ii] I hope, likewisewith anecdotesand stories,toexplain whattherulesof scienceare,including hypotheses, evidence,and control experiments.Maybeafterreading thesecomments,youwill lookwith acloseror morejaundicedeyeattelevisioncommercialsor feelmorecomfortablewithevaluating thealmostdaily and oftenconflicting newclaimsregarding diets,the value ofcertain medicines,or exerciseor lifestyle recommendations.Perhapsyou can addyourvoicewith moreconfidencetodiscussionsaboutthe warmingoftheearth,theroleof humansin thatwarming,or therelative meritsof hybrid cars,nuclear vswindorsolarenergy,and theothermyriad questions oftheday.This istheresponsibilityof an informed citizenry,with“informed” meaning having theinformation AND being in a position toevaluate it. I hopeso.

Thereisanotherelementhere. Scienceisfun and myintention ismoretoexplain whyweare scientists. Tothatend Iwould rather playtheroleofraconteur,and run through anecdotesdescribing howscienceworks,thestories ofscience. Scienceisall aboutpuzzlesand gamesand mysteries. Inmy classesIoften usedclipart picturesof a detectivetoemphasizethatthe huntforan explanation ofhow something worked playedoutexactlylikea good mystery,thegradual accumulationof clues,the ingeniousexperiment(read:thetrap thatthedetectivelaysfortheunsuspecting miscreant),theruling outof alternatesolutions,and thefinal proofofthehypothesis. Itisnotnearlythe “search for Truth”or “myscienceispureand holy”stylethatsooftencropsup in televisionmysteries;it’sthefun ofbeing thechild called tothestagein amagicshow,abletowatch themagician up closeand having thechance tofigureout howthetrickisdone,thatdrivesus. Normallyweidentify questionsthatwethink have valuetomankind,and wesetouttofind howthesystemworks.Perhapsitis anancientinstinct,derived fromourearliesthunter-gatherer ancestors,and reflected in gamblerstoday. Toan earlyhunter,beit animalor human,thereisan advantageto understanding thesystem:“Iftheantelopecametothe spring lastevening,itislikelytocomethis evening.”Ifyoutalktoanyonewhoplaysthelotteryor gambles,itisstriking howmanyoftheminvestfaith in “systems”thatmakelittlemathematicalsense:“I choseeverythirdodd number,and I wasonlyonenumber fromwinning!” This too, however illogical, is an effort to “understand the system.” Scientiststooinvest considerableemotionalenergyin trying tofind“howthesystemworks”. The excitement of the hunt makes every new day the most exciting day to be alive and to practice science.

***Note on what you can do with this book: Electronic format has a size limit that does not permit large or detailed pictures. However, this type of science is often best explained by visual techniques, pictures or videos. Therefore most of the pictures are indicated by outlines or sketches and are hotlinked to the source. Some are to web pages, in which case the link is to the page and for some a mirror copy is available on a Flickr® site available for this book. Photos that are taken from the personal collection of Richard A Lockshin and Zahra Zakeri Lockshin are also available via hotlink on the Flickr® site, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ral_bornthisway

I am very grateful to Igor Siwanowicz for permission to use his photographs as a cover for the book and as part of Figures 5.5 and 10.2. I must acknowledge the tremendous tolerance of my wife, Zahra Zakeri, an accomplished scientist in her own right, who has borne with my musings, flights of fancy, and digressions over many years, as well as taking usually much better quality pictures than mine, many of which grace this book; my children, Miriam and Nora, who not only survived the meanderings of my mind but often outreach me in their curiosity; and above all, my late parents, Samuel and Florence Levin Lockshin, who were bemused by my and my brother’s explorations, often catching escaped frogs and mantises, or tolerating the various odors of assorted caged animals. I was truly astonished when, after we had caught some tadpoles and were draining the dirty pond water into the sink at a friend’s house, my friend’s father came home and was furious about what we were doing. Many students over the years also caught that bug. I thank everyone for that tolerance. Curiosity is a wonderful thing, and it keeps you from getting bored in school.

~~~~~

 

[i]The Joy of Science, by Richard A. Lockshin, Springer, 2007 ISBN-10: 140206098XISBN-13: 978-140206098

[ii] See Born This Way: How Science is Done and Practiced, by Richard A. Lockshin, due Fall 2013.

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