In one of my former lives I was a scientist. I was a second rate scientist, because I was too lazy to learn the math needed to be a first rate one, and too disorganized and easily bored to be sufficiently systematic about collecting data.
But my biggest mistake was in my choice of field in graduate school. In college, when I finally settled on a major, (having previously chosen and discarded speech, art history and political science) I majored in zoology. These days zoology is no longer an option. Too old fashioned.
These days you major in biology with the emphasis on molecular biology. There are several reasons for this. First of all, chemistry is basic to life, so the reasoning is that biology should be a lot about chemistry. Second, biology has suffered to some degree from the criticism that its science isn’t “hard” enough. The social sciences get the worst of this attitude: they get sneered at by all the natural sciences and are called “soft”. But physicists look down on chemistry and biology. They figure they have mastered the most difficult of disciplines and are qualified to opine on any subject. And chemists look down on biologists. So biologists try to defend by being more chemical.
But back to what I learned about in Zoology. I learned a lot of stuff about animals (a category which, of course, includes humans.) I learned about how they develop (embryology), how they are built (anatomy), how they function (physiology, cell biology), how they interact with their environment and each other (ecology, animal behavior.) What I enjoyed the most was discovering the marvelous diversity of animal life that has evolved on earth, and how it began and changed through the ages.
In the beginning of my study of zoology I learned about animals without backbones – invertebrates. The lectures were given by Dr. Mortensen, a spinsterish lady in her 60’s. She was dry and stern, but smart, organized and rigorous. In the lab we started by looking at small things through the microscope. At first all I could see was my own eyelashes. When I learned to manipulate the microscope it revealed a new world to me. We were supposed to find various microscopic critters and draw them. I loved doing that. I was in awe of Dr. Mortensen, even though my pre-med friends all thought she was boring and complained that they would never “use” the information she taught.
During my undergraduate years I learned about jellyfish, sponges, starfish, crabs, bears, dogs, sloths, duck-billed platypuses, ostriches, spiders, rhinoceros beetles, rhinoceroses, blue jays, and I could go on for pages. My point is, there are a lot of different kinds of critters.
In order to study different kinds of animals we must name them and put them into some kind of ordered system. That discipline is taxonomy. Taxonomy is the part of biology I like the best. It’s where you get see the big picture, how it all fits together, and how one thing arose from another, how life evolved, and we, the people, appeared on the earth.
Taxonomists give each species 2 names, the way we do our children. They have a generic (group) name and a specific name. In general, a species is defined as a breeding group. There is apparently something innate in humans that makes them name things this way, that is, with 2 parts. Anthropologists have found that most cultures studied name both people and animals with 2 names.
In the New York Times on Tuesday this week (Aug 11) there was an article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, a biologist who lives in Bellingham. She has written a book, well reviewed, called Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science. I have ordered a copy. She writes that there is a part of the human brain “that is devoted to the doing of taxonomy.” Researchers have found that if this part of the brain is damaged, a region of the temporal lobe that names and classifies organisms, a person becomes incapable of recognizing living things.
I will read the book with interest and regret that I didn’t spend my life exploring this fascinating topic. Instead, mostly because I was following the funding, I did my graduate work in cell biology, and ended up with my second love, the microscope. I became an electron microscopist and explored the endless complexity of the world inside the cell.