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On specialization in biology
July 22, 2009 3:18 PM   Subscribe

An Outsider's View "Over the past fifty years, factions of biologists have had a complex relationship. Some scientists have continued to carry out relatively traditional natural history work, with little need to delve into molecular (or computational) biology. Others have given little attention to natural history, focusing their efforts instead on deciphering the complexities of a membrane channel, or building new algorithms for identifying open reading frames. In some cases, biologists have bridged this divide, and the result has been a fruitful collaboration. But in other cases—such as the DNA studies on whales and hippos—one group moves into the other's traditional territory, sparking new conflict."[via]
posted by dhruva (12 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

The fact of factions biologists, when they range into the zone of habitation of other biologists, often acquiring in a very slight degree some of the characters of such factions, accords with our view that factions of all kinds are only well-marked and permanent varieties. Thus the computational biologists which are confined to computers in fluorescent lit basements are generally less brightly coloured then the physiologists which as every collector knows, are often brassy or lurid.
posted by colophon at 4:01 PM on July 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

posted by honest knave at 4:03 PM on July 22, 2009

Thus the computational biologists which are confined to computers in fluorescent lit basements are generally less brightly coloured then the physiologists which as every collector knows, are often brassy or lurid.

Having just come back from a large computational biology conference, I can say that there's some truth in this.
posted by kersplunk at 4:08 PM on July 22, 2009

Thanks for posting. Great article.
posted by hippybear at 4:13 PM on July 22, 2009

Anthropology is a microcosm of this larger divide, since morphologists (old school zoologist types) often share departments with molecular folk. We generally agree, and get along well enough to drink together.

An example of one of the conflicts is a controversial paper that was just published claiming (wrongly) that orangutans and not chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to humans, a position based largely on physiological features (including having something called a "flexed rectum" and the ability to smile without opening one's mouth).

(Here's a summary article.)

It flies in the face of all the molecular evidence, so it obviously has not been well received.
posted by bergeycm at 6:34 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

As someone who works in a different place along the border of physics and biology, this is an excellent description of the pitfalls of myopia in science. It is amazing how often computational and theoretical types fail to make even cursory attempts to falsify their work with widely available biological knowledge. I try not to fall into the same boat, but it is difficult when so, so much information is out there and the people who are good have been studying their field for decades. I feel like the current generation of scientists tends to be getting better at appreciating all sides of interdisciplinary work, though, so hopefully things are looking up.
posted by Schismatic at 6:42 PM on July 22, 2009

Haha, colophon. Despite (or because, in reverse) phenotypic differences between computational biologists and field zoological (typically marine) biologists, will they eventually become different "species" (for certain values of species) because one of pale and the other dark? =)


Caveat I'm a molecular guy who's mainly been ex vivo and in vitro and hated the clinical side.

Part of the game of research Science! is that you want to be the person who's right. There're political, social, and economic reasons to be an asshole and promote your particular point-of-view/model.

I know in vivo people who get nitty automatically about anything in vitro. I know behaviour people who get up in molecular people's grills. Lots of molecular people poo-poo behaviouralists as "so what's the mechanism" and get pissed off at computational people as "Great. You have a model. Good for you. This doesn't happen in reality." &c &c &c.

There's been a little bit of a push by the Canadian granting agencies in "intra-discipline research." I think they've been making it too broad (possibly because they've been hiring people with humanities backgrounds in policy making positions) and it ends up being Medieval South American Studies mixed with Medical Genetics or somesuch (yes, I'm exagerrating).

Most scientists, in the current era, make names and careers in niches. It's hard to be a generalist without being some self-serving weeney who doesn't actually do primary research.

Biology needs people who are more holistic. Molecular guys with behaviour backgrounds or computer scientists who grok biol. It's easier to pick up bio than the harder sciences (imo) but of the physics, maths, comp sci guys who are in my neuroscience department; they bring their paradigm with them rather than their ability. They don't quite get around to asking the right questions but rather try to fit experimental data into a model or use pubmed as their data source or something, rather than using their computational accumen to try to explain why they see the things that they observe (or why they don't) and in thus finding new avenues of investigation.
posted by porpoise at 8:47 PM on July 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm in a botany department where there has traditionally been a lot of focus on small-scale genetic and molecular stuff, but my lab has a focus on landscape-level ecology. I wander the halls, looking at the posters and publications pinned up, proudly declaring that allele x has this effect on auxin production in a certain genotype of a certain pea species, and I think "what's the point?".

But then I notice that these groups seem to actually be making slow but steady progress in their isolated, unique area of research, while we broad-scale guys with our scatter-shot methods tend to go around and around in circles, very rarely actually solving anything.

But I maintain it's more fun, being a generalist. I seem to get to consider different systems, different organisms, different methods every week.
posted by Jimbob at 11:00 PM on July 22, 2009

Huh - nothing new here.

By which I mean - thank god someone finally said this. It is just human nature to split, debate, Balkanize and cheerlead like this (Pepsi or Coke? North London or South London? Fords or Toyotas?) but it continually surprises me how much of this goes on in science. Amongst what I've seen:

* The DNA barcode proponents (who always seem on the verge of saying that _nothing_ matters but DNA) versus the anti-DNA / traditional taxonomy crowd (some of whom seriously argue that DNA is irrelevant to taxonomy)

* The cladists - intent on building a beautiful, consistent and complete taxonomies, even if they have to ignore practicality, reality and sometimes evidence - versus everyone that actually _uses_ taxonomies.

* "Lumpers" and "splitters" in taxonomy.

* The "race doesn't exist" versus the "ohmigod yes it does" groups in anthropology and evolution

* The human evolutionists who argue that Homo sapiens evolved simultaneously around the world (which flies in the face of DNA evidence, evolution and common sense).
posted by outlier at 7:32 AM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hah, so true. In the course of my three year undergrad degree in Biology (which ended up specialising to straight Virology), I had exactly twelve lectures on "animal biology". Six of those were on microscopic organisms, and two more were on Drosophila.

As far as I ever found out, there was only one guy in the whole department (well, plus his PhD student) who was doing whole-organism biology, unless you count the fruit fly geneticists. Everyone else was molecular or, at most, microbiology.

The department I'm in now has a load of medical doctors working here, who are generally great at anatomy and histology (mine is embarassingly bad), but start out astonishingly weak in molecular stuff.

Pure scientists are forever asking the medics "but what's the mechanism of [drug/toxin]?". Medics are forever asking the molecular guys "but why should anyone care about your project?". Sometimes it's like we're speaking completely different languages.
posted by metaBugs at 7:48 AM on July 23, 2009

> Biology needs people who are more holistic. Molecular guys with behaviour backgrounds or computer scientists who grok biol.

Yeah I think one can get much further that way. My problem is that while I am extremely sympathetic to new approaches, and new techniques, often using these techniques requires a level of understanding of math/programming/chemistry etc that's just way over my head. I study spider behaviour and while I'm keen on doing inter-disciplinary stuff, it's almost impossible unless I get a collaborator.
posted by dhruva at 10:48 AM on July 23, 2009

As a humanities geek, I just have to say what a relief it is to know hard scienc-ey folk do this too.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:40 PM on July 24, 2009

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