Thursday, 26 April 2018

What sort of thinkers are today’s zoologists?

Bob Martin in 2013 at the Field Museum
Photograph by Yu Lao (Wikimedia Commons)

Some essays stand the test of time. One such is that written in 1976 by Bob Martin, then running the Wellcome laboratory at London Zoo and now Emeritus Curator at the Field Museum in Chicago. It was entitled A Zoologist’s View of Research on Reproduction and was based on the talk he gave at the symposium of the Zoological Society of London to celebrate its 150th anniversary. He took the opportunity to provide a wide-ranging forward look and asked how things would turn out in the future. Amongst those topics was this one:

At this point, it is relevant to consider some evidence concerning the psychological background to scientific research. In his studies of the mental aptitudes of schoolboys, Liam Hudson[*] (1966, 1968) drew a crucial distinction between "convergent" and "divergent" thinkers. The former performed well on standard IQ tests requiring specific answers to well-defined questions. The latter performed best on "open-ended" intelligence tests requiring imaginative answers to questions which did not prescribe specific answers. This distinction, which is usually one of degree rather than sharp demarcation in individual cases, is in some ways parallel to a distinction between "specialists" and "generalists". As a rule, Hudson's convergent thinkers were more likely to study science at university, while divergent thinkers were more attracted to arts subjects. It is interesting, however, that zoology seemed to attract convergent and divergent thinkers in roughly equal proportions (or people who combined aptitudes in both directions). Different interpretations may be drawn from this observation. It could be said that zoology as a subject attracted a proportion of divergent thinkers because it traditionally lacked the apparently sharp scientific rigour of the physical sciences. At the same time, it is probably true that zoology as a subject has owed many of its major advances to the flair and imagination of those who could both identify and dissect general principles despite the complexities of whole animals in their natural habitats. The question that remains to be answered is: does the future development of zoology depend upon the same aptitudes as the past? For those who view zoology as a domain to be progressively replaced by current approaches to molecular biology, the answer is probably "No". For those who see in zoology a hierarchy of general principles, only some of which may be "explained" in molecular terms, the answer is probably "Yes". Whatever the answer may be, it would seem to be true that the greatest promise for future developments in zoological research lies in a combination of "divergent" and "convergent" thinking. Technical expertise and knowledge of fundamental life-processes should ideally be matched by a comprehensive understanding of whole animals and their interactions in natural environmental systems.

Since 1976 there has been a progressive horizontal slicing of the biological sciences, rather than the vertically integrated, explanatory reductionist approach of the zoologist of the middle of the 20th Century. I warned of this problem in a commentary I wrote in 1989:

It is a strange aspect of scientists’ behaviour that they condemn work at the levels of complexity above that at which they work as out-of-date and as mere natural history. Unfortunately, the divisions and intellectual isolation that lead to these attitudes appear to be increasing as universities reorganize their administrative and teaching structures for the biological sciences. The fashion is for organismal biology to be split from the rest of the biological sciences, while cell biology and molecular biology are being isolated at the other end of the scale. Thus the new disciplines are becoming horizontal divisions corresponding to the level of biological complexity…

It is true that organismal biologists have made more and more use of molecular techniques but the intervening levels like physiology have been pulled either upwards or downwards to an extent such that in Britain at least, comparative physiology has virtually disappeared and explanatory reductionist approaches abandoned.

But what of the people, to return to Bob Martin’s question? Are those working at the molecular and cellular levels of biological organisation more likely to ‘convergent’ and those working  on whole animals in their environment ‘divergent’ thinkers? And are we getting the right people into the right jobs? The latter is an important question because what has not changed is the fact that the subject studied at school, for example biology, will bear very little resemblance to that subject at university level even allowing for the fact that different university departments have different emphases and interests.

*1933-2005. Obituary - see here.

Martin RD. 1976. A Zoologist’s View of Research on Reproduction. In, The Zoological Society of London 1826-1876 and Beyond. Ed. Zuckerman. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London 40, 283-319.

Peaker M. 1989. Commentary: Molecular endocrinology: a welcome extension to, but not a replacement for, endocrinology. Journal of Endocrinology 120, 361-362.