The languages of biology

I gave a lecture today in my first-year Evolution course about the importance of good taxonomy to other fields of biology. Tales of biocontrol successes and failure, and bioprospecting for new cancer drugs, and discovery of useful wild crop relatives, and environmental impact assessment, and ecotourism (yes, even whale-watching depends on accurate species identification) have a way of connecting students to this much-maligned discipline of ours. I don’t think for a second that this lecture, or this course, has transformed many of those students into budding taxonomists, but I like to think that at least some of them will leave the course with a greater appreciation of the field, and of other disciplines of biology. And, maybe, one or two of them might wander down the stairs to the lab to see what we do, and how they might become a part of that.

Diversity is critical in keeping a field of science healthy and innovative. For every rubber-boot field biologist, we need a lab-coat molecular biologist. For every grad student pushing buttons on machines, we need somebody outside with binoculars. Because, although they may not realize it now, and although we sometimes like to hide in our silos and snipe at each other, we all need each other to figure out the Big Questions of life on earth.

So, in that windowless classroom full of future scientists today, I was talking about taxonomy and biodiversity inventories, not just to the Environmental Biology majors who want to spend their careers outside looking at mammals or beetles or moss, but to the Life Science majors who see a career in the biotech lab, and to the few Food Science or Nutrition students who took the course as an elective. And I hope that, five years from now they’ll still be able to appreciate why a phylogenetic tree is such a powerful image in the study of biology, and why the names of species are the key to a huge filing cabinet full of information about life, and why other flavours of biology matter.

I went back to the lab after class and spent some time talking to Stephanie about some new species she was describing, to Heather about her thesis proposal in fly taxonomy, to Meagan about how we might be able to incorporate some DNA sequence data into her ecological project on arctic flies, and to Christine, who continues to process her rich samples of insect diversity in urban and rural green spaces. It’s refreshing to hop between the silos of taxonomy and ecology, of organismal biology and molecular analysis. We need to do that more often.

I’ve known some very good molecular people over the years who look down on natural history as an archaic pursuit. I’ve known some excellent taxonomists who have no interest in ecology. I’ve known some field biologists who think that nothing useful ever came out of a lab filled with pipettes and PCR machines. I feel sorry for them all. We should all wander into each others’ worlds every now and then. Pick up a few words of each others’ scientific languages. We might learn something. That’s why a lot of us are scientists, isn’t it?

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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6 Responses to The languages of biology

  1. I hope a few of your students take the opportunity to venture into the collection and start exploring biodiversity and taxonomy; they don’t know what they’re missing! Fantastic post, and a topic that funding agencies and university hiring committees need to be reminded of soon.

  2. Thanks, Morgan. I’m pleasantly surprised, and encouraged, at how many students come in to the museum every term and ask to see the collection (once they find out it exists!). Although some university administrators view such collections as storage (at best) or wasted space (at worst), I see those rows of cabinets and drawers as one of the most powerful recruiting tools we have to turn students on to what biodiversity really means. And it’s not just Morpho butterflies and scarab beetles – it’s rows of stalk-eyed flies, and bee-mimicking syrphids, and bullet ants and bizarre treehoppers. A few of the star Lymanites who have gone through the lab and on to bigger things started out as one of those curious first-year students who wandered down the stairs.

  3. Peter Desmet says:

    Hi Terry, great post! Another way to attract people to the collection is by publishing the specimen data (hint 😉 ). To me, a map of specimens is a very powerful image: this is what we know is out there, but there is still so much to discover.

    • Good points Peter, and now that the term is finally drawing to a close, we might even manage to take that hint and get the data published! I’m also looking forward to seeing all of Amelie’s work on the collection translated into a sea of dots on a map.

  4. An excellent message. I get tired of all the sniping between the various specialized branches – as if only one tool is sufficient to figure out the Grand Diversity of Life.

    I still remember the first time I walked into the Entomology Museum as a wide-eyed undergrad at Mizzou and knew instantly that was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I get that same feeling every time I pop in for a visit – now 3+ decades later.

  5. Too true, Ted. I was surprised to discover that the way I viewed our collection changed quite dramatically when we started working on community ecology projects in addition to doing taxonomic work. I think that when we start using collection data to address different kinds of questions we begin to realize what a uniquely powerful resource is sitting inside those cabinets. We, as a community, would do much to promote taxonomy and collections if we opened the doors to “non-traditional” users a little more often.

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