I received a query from reader Jodi, of Nova Scotia (I so want to visit there one summer) about how to learn about a scientific subject as a layperson. Of course being a philosopher I was able to answer her quickly, but readers may wish to comment more authoritatively and knowledgeably, as we know philosophy is not bound by little things such as facts. This comes from a comment I made in my talk recently about getting one’s theory of evolution from Dawkins or Gould… [Now there's a red rag to a certain curmudgeonly bull in Toronto]. Below the fold:
My name is Jodi …, I live in Nova Scotia, Canada and I’m interested in studying biology. I recently listened to your talk: “Species, Traditions and Corporations: What is it that evolves?” and I remember you making a particular point about learning biology from people such as Richard Dawkins (whom I have only read/seen a few things from) and getting it all wrong. I was simply wondering if you had any suggestions for books/materials/texts on biology for someone just starting out in the study (aside from basic high school biology). I know that ideally a university course would be best but admittedly I can’t afford that at the moment but still want to make some progress in my education.
Any suggestions at all would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks so much,
Generally high school biology texts are worthwhile to start with, and then university texts – you can usually pick up second hand copies for not very much at bookstores. However, the problem lies in the nature of textbooks.
A textbook contains what is widely regarded by all to be true about ten or twenty years ago, updated where the current authors have some knowledge. This means they are a very good source for many things but need an expert eye to correct them. This is fine when your teacher is the expert, but usually students learn “what everybody knows” in that discipline and as they become more expert they unlearn some of it. Not all of it, but some.
Specialist monographs – books that cover only a restricted topic (like say seal reproduction in Nova Scotia) will give you up to date knowledge in more detail than you ever wanted. And technical papers will give you cutting edge research not quite accepted by all yet (if they are cited, then they are accepted, unless they are cited to be disputed – isn’t science fun?)
There is no easy path to good knowledge, so the question is best stated: “how much effort do I want to put in in order to say sensible things about biology?” The answer is, I think, as much as you need to not make a fool of yourself if you happen to be talking to an expert. Experts are very easy going – if you show you know the basics, they are pleased and will happily correct any errors you may have got (*so* happily!). That a lay person knows the basics is a great compliment to their discipline.
So in short, read the (undergraduate level) textbooks, and if you want to make a general claim, go through Google Scholar or some similar search engine to find exceptions. But to understand the general theory of a domain you have to read the theoretical works, and that means… math! So if math scares you as it does me, find summary papers. One good source for biology is the Annual Reviews in… – these are specialist volumes that give papers that summarise for the general biologists the current state of play, and they are usually very approachable even for a nonbiologist. AR in Ecology and Evolution [NB: note proper title at the link] is a very good series.
Hmm… this is a good post for the blog. Do you mind if I put your letter up?