Biology Never Was The Same: Mark Borrello

The best of last June

i-68efa548cdb44e33126c5936c96fe3ed-evolution_2008.jpgContinuing with our discussion of the Evolution 2008 conference, I’d like to relate at least the essence, as I saw it, of an excellent talk by Mark Borrello.

I’ve seen Mark speak at least three times including yesterday, and soon after his talk we continued on the topic in a conversation over lunch and beers, so my comments here are less a summary of Mark’s talk at the Evolution 2008 conference than a more general reaction to what I believe to be his main points.

i-283f125a753886df1095ced6cfeaf735-BorrelloMarkbw.jpgEveryone knows that history repeats itself. Or, at least, as per Samuel Clemens, if history does not repeat itself, at least it rhymes. But more importantly, if we engage in research, theoretical or empirical, we often find that similar work was done in the past. And this should lead us to wonder why we are still doing it. And, why we will do it again. And the answer is very simple: There are only a few questions. Very rarely does a new question emerge. And we ask the same questions again and again, with methods that vary (sometimes only a little) and answers that are sometimes novel and sometimes not.

But why would we do that?

Because we get something out of it. Context is content. The questions remain the same, the methods slowly evolve, the answers vary, but the context is always shifting, and it is actually, quite often, the interaction between the context and the content that makes us sit up and go “Holy crap, hadn’t thought of THAT before…. ” even when THAT has been thought of again and again.

I don’t mean to make it sound boring or fruitless, because it is neither. Especially to hear Borrello talking about it (‘it’ being scientific research). In fact, the whole point of Mark’s talk was to encourage teachers to examine the history behind certain key ideas or findings, the history behind certain research questions, and to bring this history into the classroom.

(He gets a percentage … he is an historian of science. They have some kind of deal worked out.)

Mark presented and discussed one of my favorite topics in evolution: Darwin’s drawings of phylogeny.

Do you know how close this was? My old blog (“Evolution, not just a theory any more“) was going to be called “I Think” and the logo for my new blog was going to be this bit from one of Darwin’s notebooks:


Look at that. Darwin writes in his notebook:

“I think”

Then he draws a picture … this is 1838 mind you …. he draws a picture of a phylogenetic tree, labels a couple of branches, then writes some notes about it. I like to think of this as the moment that Evolutionary Theory was born. But of course it wasn’t, things are more complex than that (a discussion for another time). Anyhow, my old blog used to use that graphic as it’s logo, and almost got that name (as did the blog you are reading now).

So Mark showed us this tree, and some other trees, including the one graphic in Darwin’s Origin, which is also a tree. This was prelude to a discussion about gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium … as answers to the essential question … “how does evolution work … what does it look like over time and across species …” Huxley warned Darwin about Darwin’s gradualism, saltational (jumping) evolution emerged anyway, but was put to bed by Ernst Mayr, to be revived later by Eldridge and Gould. All the time the same question, and really, very similar answers. (In the sense that these two contrasting patterns of evolution have always had their proponents and their detractors, this still being true.)

Mark underscored his point further by pointing out a number of different major seminal research projects that had either been lost in the fog of history, or are preceded by antecedents usually forgotten.

For instance, when do you think the first playback experiment was done with primates? You know, where you play their previously recorded calls for them to hear, to see how they respond …..When was the first clone produced? In what year was the first genetic map made?

Obviously, these are all trick questions, and since they were posed by an Historian of Science, you can bet that the dates are older than you think… But just as importantly, the story that necessarily emerges if one tries to explain each unexpectedly early date is itself relevant and interesting, and in most cases would be absolutely fascinating in unadulterated form to any high school student (especially the story about the first gene map … wow…).

Let’s see… what was the point of Mark’s talk … I’ll check my notes… Ah, here it is:


More Posts on Evolution 2008

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