Genomics is natural history


As scientists, we live for those lightbulb moments. I imagine we’re more likely to have these moments if we know more natural history, which lets us piece together fundamental facts about our natural world in a new way. Continue reading

Making ideas or evaluating them? Climbing aboard theoretical bandwagons


It’s no mere coincidence that both Darwin and Wallace figured out natural selection at roughly the same time. The basic facts at the foundation of the mechanism of natural selection seem to have been established for a couple millennia. They didn’t converge until the Victorian era of natural philosophers. Before that time, some false assumptions about the nature of existence stood in the way.

In a similar vein, both Newton and Leibniz independently developed calculus at the same time as one another.

Likewise, Verhulst created the logistic equation. Then, it took almost 100 years for someone to come upon this again, by Pearl and by Lotka who did this independently of one another.

At the start of the 1900s, people were attempting to build a heavier-than-air machine capable of controlled flight. There was a convergence of technology and ideas that allowed these things to develop on three continents, at just about the same moment in human history. That’s no mere coincidence. History was ripe for that to happen, though it took a special vision, and plenty of hard work applied in just the right way, to put things together. The Wright Brothers were were perpetual tinkerers. They were also driven by data, experimentation and critical analysis of their findings, allowing them to figure out the actually fatal errors of their predecessors. (It’s worth a visit to Dayton, I had the chance to visit a couple months ago. Their bicycle shop looks and feels a lot like a lab you’d find at a small teaching school. It’s mighty inspiring.)

For every Darwin and Newton, whose ideas had contemporary shadows, there are many more innovators that go it alone. If their ideas were not developed, then we have to wonder if they ever would have happened. Some people say that about the smartphone. It’s hard to say how often this is true. Regardless, there is a reward to the first to figure out an important idea, when these ideas spur progress. (I have to admit that the copy of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions on my shelf is dusty and not fully read. I think more people have made it through Ulysses.)

I got to take a vacation to Iceland a couple years ago. It was enlightening. And there was a Penis Museum in Húsavík, too. For a millennium, Iceland’s subsistence living, and whatever mediocre export economy that could be mustered, depended heavily on sheep. While farmers in Europe were using the spinning wheel for centuries, Icelandic farmers were still spinning wool with feeble handspools. Moreover, back in the day they made shoes out of hide, but never figured out how to make leather. A long journey would require several pairs of shoes for long journeys because they would wear out so quickly. Some contemporary roads are named after the number of pairs of shoes it used to take to make the journey along the road. I don’t mean to pick on the Viking ancestors of contemporary Icelanders, as they withstood the little ice age far better than I ever could have. I don’t know if, while spinning wool on a handspool, I would have been the one to independently invent a spinning wheel separate from outside influence. I’d like to think I could have been that resourceful, though I might have been too busy to take the days off to work on it.

As contemporary Icelanders can tell you, the development of new ideas matters.

Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the plane. Now, without consulting Wikipedia, can you tell me who else was critical in the development of early airplanes?

Many people did great and important work on early flight. Their contributions were critical, even if we can’t recall many of their names. Heck, I’ve been surrounded by aviation history for more than a decade (on account of my spouse’s job and the location of my campus) and I can’t name more than a handful of the pioneers of early flight.

from wikimedia commons

from Wikimedia Commons

Here’s why we can’t remember those other guys (and, it seems they indeed were all men) who turned early planes into something workable for society: their jobs were interchangeable.

I posit that anybody with the training in engineering, math and workmanship skills could have followed through on the first principles developed by the Wright Brothers to grow the field of aviation. Much of it was done by the Wrights themselves, but they had many colleagues and competitors. Flight wouldn’t have taken off (heh heh) unless there was the labor and brain juice expended by many people at the time.

When a new idea comes out, which is more important, the development of the idea or the fleshing out of the idea? Clearly, more glory comes with the former. Both are important. I think it’s silly to say that one is more important than the other because both are essential components. When a great idea comes around, someone’s got to put meat on those bones. It take a whole community of researchers to do that.

For example, some have said that E.O. Wilson is one of the most important scientists of the past century. Why do people say that? Because he created the kernels of many ideas. He put them out into the world, and then many people pursued them. These include the taxon cycle, island biogeography, the social regulation of caste in social insects, sociobiology. He fleshed out the ideas enough to get others to test them out in great detail. He never really lingered on these ideas once he put them out there.

The community of scientists is principally composed of people who are testing theories and fleshing them out. After someone figured out the spinning wheel, then there were many people who worked on the design to make it better. That task of filling-in-the-details is the currently bulk of work in science.

Humor me while I bring out a couple more examples.

In the field of ecology, Hubbell’s formulation of neutral theory was a major progress as a null model that was entirely lacking in community ecology. In the field of behavior, Hamilton’s conception of inclusive fitness revolutionized how we think about the evolution of social groups. After these ideas were formalized, small armies of researchers have pursued these questions to hammer out details, question theoretical foundations, and understand how things can be generalized and how things might not occur. Regardless of how significant kin selection is 100 years from now (I am not invested into it either way), the formulation of the idea by Hamilton was successful in spurring a scientific revolution, which is still spinning to this day (and Wilson even stepped into the fray as a gadfly).

Many of my friends and colleagues have done great work, with much of their careers invested, on the details of kin selection and many of its subtheories and corollaries. So, I hope I don’t hurt any feelings when I suggest the idea that a lot of this work could have been done by interchangeable scientists. (I’m open to being convinced otherwise.) The work required brilliance, perseverance and specialized training. However, if any one person didn’t make some of the contributions, then the gaps would have filled in by the others. As a group, the entire endeavor was significant and as a community, researchers of social animals learned a ton. I greatly value their contributions, and some of them are a model for how I run my own lab in a number of ways.

Who should be a part of that workforce ? Does it matter? Who is best suited to it?

Who is suited to making big new concepts, and who is suited to that kind of fleshing-out-of-ideas science, to test existing theories, and build upon these to make new subtheories? Moreover, what kinds of research labs are suited to each kind of option? My little undergraduate lab probably shouldn’t follow the same path of a lab with multiple doctoral students and postdocs.

So, I don’t choose that path.  I mean: I don’t like either option. I choose option C.

What’s option C? That requires a taxonomy of research goals. That’s a set of posts within the next month.

Nobody with whom to share cool discoveries


Research institutions build core strengths in particular research areas. However, teaching schools hire faculty to teach their specialty, so that as many subdisciplines as possible can be represented. This means that there is typically one person in each field. There are exceptions, such as a department that houses multiple herpetologists who study different aspects of herps.

The hardest part about being the only expert in social insects at my job, is how lonely it gets when something exciting happens. Without a doubt, most exciting, heart-pounding this-is-awesome experiences happen in front of the computer when I’m analyzing data. (Aside from stumbling on caecilians and big cats in the field.) When I find out something entirely new that changes, just a little bit, how we think the world works. Sometimes it’s a steady realization, but sometimes – BAM – the pattern emerges immediately. Like the one in the figure. This is a genuinely new find, which has a generalized application, and right away I was thrilled. But there was nobody there to revel with me.


A cool pattern.

My undergrad lab members don’t quite get how cool these moments are. My excellent department mates would be happy but it’s not their field. My spouse is as smart as a person gets, but she’s not a biologist and explaining it in a couple minutes takes away the fun. There are tens of thousands of people in the world who would understand exactly how this is cool, but none of them are next door.

There’s one big upside to being isolated when making cool discoveries. The desire to share it can burn for a while, to get me through writing, revision, submission, resubmission, resubmission, revision and publication. If I remember how cool it was to first learn about it, I hang on to that through the more tedious stages.

This is what I miss about grad school and postdoc-ing: a space full of labmates for sharing these moments. Perhaps this is why I particularly enjoy conferences, being invited for talks, and overlapping with others at my field site, because this is when I’m with my kindred.