What shall we call it?

Pheuctius melanocephalus

Pheuctius melanocephalus

Cyanocitta stellen

Cyanocitta stellen

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.

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13 Responses to What shall we call it?

  1. dale says:

    Sigh. The fall of zoology. It’s completely bogus, of course. What gives physicists such high status is that basic analytic myth of science — that we’ll break things down to their simplest parts and understand them at — well, at what we used to call the atomic, and now call the subatomic level. When we understand that, we’ll understand everything, from the bottom up.

    It’s silly, of course, because there’s no reason whatsoever to think that there is a simplest level at all, and every reason to think there is not. It’s a shame that the science of things perceptible to the immediate senses has inferior status, because it’s the science of what we’re most interested in, as human beings, and probably the science that will be the most useful to us.

  2. Annie says:

    Oohh! I did biology too!

    My college was so small that one just did biology, period, but I think most of my fellow biol students were doing zoology, I was I think the only botany student in my year.

    I heard about that book, I think I will try to get it too. My first job after completing my master’s was with a top plant taxonomist, John McNeil, and I got to spend a whole year doing research into the history of the naming of certain Linnaean species (i.e., plants named by Linnaeaus, then renamed by subsequent taxonomists). It was totally fascinating. I wish I could have pursued a career as a taxonomist, it was wonderful work!

    What makes biological taxonomy so interesting and frustrating is that while so-called “species” may be distinct breeding groups in animals (for the most part), all bets are off in the plant, fungal and bacterial worlds. They’re completely deviant! “Lumpers” and “splitters” go nuts, arguing ad nauseum about what is or is not a species. We impose our worldview on nature and then fight with each other when it (the natural world) does not conform! But it is completely fascinating.

    I think microscopy would have been my second choice, and you with your artistic talent must have loved doing that kind of work. The more I learn about you and your life, the more fascinated I become!

  3. Celeste Maia says:

    As us taxonomists would say, you are a true scribo internetum!

  4. Old Woman says:

    What can I say? What satisfying comments! Dale, you are so cerebral, and you think on all subjects.

    Annie, you are a sole mate. And you’re right about plant species, of course. They really mix and match.

    Maia, I love the title. But we need to capitalize the genus and perhaps have a feminine ending?

  5. Darlene says:

    Science was never my forte so I won’t embarrass myself by commenting except to say I am in awe in the presence of such intellectual people.

  6. Friko says:

    Whatever kind of scientist you were/are you cannot but be a better one than me. I was the kid hiding behind the pupil in front during biology, chemistry and physics lessons. All the same, what you say about the brain and taxonomy is indeed fascinating, I can recognize a need in myself to find and use two names for any species. I know most of the names in the plant world but the animal world is a sealed book for me.
    By the way, we have two Phd physicists in the close family, both are a bit of a pain – .

  7. Marja-Leena says:

    Impressive other life you have led! And fantastic comments. I loved biology and could have enjoyed some of the so-called soft sciences especially plant (and anthropology and archaeology though not related to what you are talking about) but I went into art and arts. My ex-brother-in-law is a physicist and oceanographer and we used to have some fascinating discussions, especially his wonderful views about my art.

  8. Phoenix says:

    I studied Physics, and then Business/Management, but my dad is professor of Zoology! And reading each line of your post makes me want to talk to him.. so here I go.. to give him a call :)!

  9. Mage Bailey says:

    So thoughtful. My grandpa was a Zoologist,a college professor, a dear man that I remember really loving.

  10. Duchess says:

    Oxford continues to have a thriving zoology department. Undergraduates can not take a degree in zoology, but we have many masters and phd students. A particularly interesting area of research amongst some of our current younger scientists is how to encourage systems, environments, economics, etc. so that man can co-exist with other animals and all thrive. For example, it’s a big issue in Africa with lions and elephants, a small issue in England with badgers and water voles.

  11. wisewebwoman says:

    This remains at the hobby level for me, though I too would have loved to a more scientific pursuits. I was the victim of the ‘education being wasted on a girlchild’ era in Ireland.

  12. Natalie says:

    What a fascinating life you lead/have led! And I love the bird photos.

  13. Jan says:

    “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.”

    Well, it’s nice to know what kind of scientist I’d be, because that just describes me to a T – lazy, disorganized and easily bored.

    I’m in such good company.

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