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i-b18d72a7aafa7fcfe32e8ca07388c599-Janovy cover.jpgI wish that, many many years ago when I was becoming a biologist, that I could have read this wonderful little book – On Becoming a Biologist by John Janovy! What a little gem!

On the surface, or by looking at the Table of Contents, this slim volume appears to be just yet another in a long line of books giving advice to people who are interested about joining the profession. And sure, it does contain important information about getting accepted into a program, choosing one’s project, teaching, research, publishing, getting funded, giving talks etc. But it is also much more than that. The entire volume is permeated by personal experience and sprinkled with little gems of wisdom. In the end, you realize that biology is not just a profession – it is what you love and, more impportantly who you are, how you define yourself and how you think about the world.

In other words, biology is not what you do but who you are. A biologist is primarily a naturalist, someone who looks at the world and sees the interconnectedness, someone whose primary preoccupations are not politics, economics, entertainment, fashion or money, but the way humans are related to every other living thing on the planet.

Thus, you can earn a living by being a lawyer, clerk or politician, and still call yourself a biologist – never being bored when out in nature, never too engrossed in the business of society to lose sight of the awe and beauty of nature, never too busy chasing money to forget that you and that cockroach you just squashed are distant relatives. It is a worldview more than a profession, being able to see the natural forest for he social trees.

Likewise, you can earn your living doing biology yet not be a biologist. Being good at using a particular technique or solving puzzles makes you a good technician, but without the sense of wonder, without noticing what others do not in nature, you are not really a biologist. If you are more interested in the properties of a protein than in what that protein does in an organism to make it be adapted to its environment, you are a chemist, not a biologist. There is nothing wrong with being a chemist, of course, but this book is about being a biologist. The focus of the biologist’s attention is always the organism. One can study complex ecosystems, or one can study details of molecular biology, but if the organism is not front and center, it is not biology.

A biologist, according to Janovy,

“has, by virtue of his or her interests, the obligation to continually attemp (1) an integration of parts into a whole, and (2) an explanation of the whole in which both the behavior of the whole, and the role of the part, are considered. This manner of thinking is, or at least should be, characteristic of one who considers the function of an organelle relative to the life of a cell, of a cell relative to the life of a tissue, and so forth up to and including the roles of wholeorganisms in the organization of an ecosystem. With this kind of perspective, an average citizen should be able to metaphorically place his or her time on Earth into a context that includes the entire planet and its evolutionary history. A biologist has an obligation to explain, and perhaps promote acceptance of, this metaphor.”

Thus, it is a duty of a biologist to be a public person, a vocal spokesman for the kind of thinking about the world in which the humans are not set apart and valued on their own, but only as one of many parts in a complex system of nature. Part of this loud voice, again according to Jacoby, is the duty of a biologist to strongly and vocally denounce anthropocentric points of view – from Creationism to anti-envrionmental activities – and replace them with a naturalistic worldview in which we play an important part, but are codependent with other organisms in space and time and cannot safely regard ourselves and our societies in isolation from Nature.

This book should be a required reading for every college freshman considering a major in biology. If you have a niece or nephew who appears to ba a “natural” naturalist, this book is a perfect gift for the upcoming holiday season.

Comments

  1. #1 Paul Decelles
    November 28, 2006

    You write:

    “Part of this loud voice, again according to Jacoby, is the duty of a biologist to strongly and vocally denounce anthropocentric points of view – from Creationism to anti-envrionmental activities – and replace them with a naturalistic worldview in which we play an important part, but are codependent with other organisms in space and time and cannot safely regard ourselves and our societies in isolation from Nature.”

    Yes! Wonderful. I will definately hunt up this book.

  2. #2 Dave Carlson
    November 28, 2006

    Wow, I was inspired just reading your review. This is definitely going on my Amazon wish list.

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