The Loom

Up and Down Life’s Staircase

One reason I love writing about biology is that it has so many levels. Down at the molecular scale, proteins flop and twist. Higher up, cells crawl and feed and divide. They organize into animals and plants and other big organisms, which must obey their own rules in order to survive. For some organisms, a day is a lifetime. Others must weather centuries. When millions of organisms get together, they form ecosystems that wax and wane in ways that could not be predicted from lower levels. And over the course of generations, genes take on a new personality, no longer passive bits of code, but units of selection that can sweep across the planet and leap from species to species.

As a science writer, I have the good fortune to be able to travel from level to level, meeting scientists who generously explain to me what they’ve learned about each one. They may be paleontologists digging up fish with fingers, or microbiologists studying selfless slime molds, or entomologists studying beetle horns, or anthropologists battling over a strangely shaped skull, or molecular biologists working out the wiring of genetic circuitry.

I can’t help noticing, though, that biologists who work at life’s different levels often don’t talk much to each other. I’ve spent some time puzzling over this, and the result is an essay I’ve written for the journal PLOS Computational Biology. The full text is available for free here.

See you in 07.


  1. #1 Mike Kaspari
    December 29, 2006

    There is increasing interest in integrative biology (it’s one of the names in vogue when Zoology / Botany / Microbiology decide to merge and rebrand). You certainly can understand the behavior of a system better if you have a solid understanding of its parts.

    But its my impression that there is an asymmetry in attitudes depending upon what level you specialize. As an ecologist, I regularly use the work of my colleagues in behavior and physiology to explore, for example, how a suite of species with different behaviors and physiologies would interact, and what ecological properties would emerge from that interaction. Thus, in a very real sense, I couldn’t do my work without them.


    It has been my impression that many behaviorists, for example, generally couldn’t care less about ecology, which is a field they see has primarily descriptive or too complex to make any real progress. There is also, I think, always a bit of resentment toward the folks that abstract and simplify the work from your field so as to plug it into there’s. The behaviorist says “What do you mean talking about the niche of the white crowned sparrow? The sparrow’s niche varies from nestling through adult, from breeding season to overwintering, and from population to population.”

    It would be interesting to tally how many grand, intergrative research programs are initiated by folks working up vs. down the hierarchy.

    Getting things done in Academia
    a guide for graduate students

  2. #2 Jim Lemire
    December 29, 2006

    When I was a graduate student my department seemed to constantly be fighting this battle – we always called it the “molecular” vs “organismal” debate for lack of better terms. I was decidedly in the ecology/natural history camp and was the student representative at all faculty meetings and on the curriculum steering committee and witnessed first hand the level of animosity. Primarily many of the “molecular” types decried ecology and population biology as historical relics or as “soft” science. Students interested in ecology or natural history had a difficult time finding courses to fulfill their degree requirements and often had to go outside the department and take geology or geography courses. We also tended to be the students who bulked up on statistics classes. In the end the department lost a number of graduate students and young, talented faculty members – they just went off and found more friendly environs. Obviously some institutions have managed to handle things better, but my feeling is that this is a common problem and that most solutions (e.g. splintering a department) just tend to increase the divide.

  3. #3 Angry Lab Rat
    December 30, 2006

    As a biologist, I can understand how researchers can develop tunnel vision, especially in academics, where we go deeper and deeper into more and more specialized topics. I’m different, working in biotech, and being more of a generalist. But then the opposite applies, where I skim over the surface of so many fields, but what I lack in specialty I gain in overall observations and biological integration. I touch on this in a blog post on my site:

    Your essay is a good statement on the need for integrative biology. Good work. Keep integrating!

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    January 1, 2007

    Great article, and one I hope will appear in graduate courses across the globe. I think a lot of the problem from the molecular side was hubris: you only have to look at some of the comments when the human gemone project was starting, about how it would solve all these problems. I was reading them thinking “Yes, but where’s the real biology?”.

    I think things are getting better: genomics is now being replaced by proteonomics (read: the computer scientists have discovered that they’re not just made of DNA), and in the population genetics end of evolutionary biology, we’re seeing much more integration of molecular biology with other fields, such as ecology and physiology.

    Oh, and a confession: I only read the article after seeing
    DaveScot’s unique take on it. Don’t read it if you’re inclined to take it seriously.


  5. #5 Sandra Porter
    January 2, 2007

    I enjoyed your Plos article. Much of your observations are familiar to me, especially your note that this “divide” between organismal and molecular biologists is long-lived. Even twenty years ago, we had a Drosophila biologist at my university who used to teach genetics without mentioning the word “DNA.”

  6. #6 Bob O'H
    January 3, 2007

    I’ve just rememebered a “classic quote” from the insitute where I did my PhD:

    “Arabidopsis: what, you mean it grows in the wild?”


  7. #7 Brian
    January 5, 2007

    Excellent paper Carl. I’ve spent some time wondering why there are often these huge disconnects in science these days. Specializing in a field is important, true, but it seems that there are less and less scientists who keep track of what’s going on in related fields, especially when it comes to evolution. Even when disciplines are closely related there can be friction, like when paleontologists were equated to “stamp collectors” by Alvarez when they would not accept the significance of the impact of a meteor in the Yucatan 65 mya.

  8. #8 Jerry D. Harris
    January 5, 2007

    I can’t help noticing, though, that biologists who work at life’s different levels often don’t talk much to each other.

    This is such a multifaceted problem that there is no one solution, at least not anything that most people would be willing to do. Yes, there is growing interest in integrative biology, but the fundamental problem is that it is physically impossible for any one, no matter how anal, to keep up with the incredibly vast and ever-growing quantity of information out there. Heck, via my web site, I have a page that functions as a central point to journals that are just of vertebrate (not including much invertebrate, botanical, etc.) paleontological interest, and there are over 270 links. Add any kind of neontological material and I bet there would be easily over 1000 links, probably more. No one could keep up with it all.

    More to the point, people aren’t allowed to generalize in order to get a degree — they are essentially required to specialize in one biological subdiscipline or another, and I think most people get trapped this way along one particular trackway or career path and never have a lot of opportunity to formally learn about more than one or two other subdisciplines (unless they’re willing and financially able to be perpetual grad students); after graduation, they often move into careers that keep them along the paths they set upon in grad school. Paleontology is especially tricky that way, since in most schools it’s perceived as or included as a geological, not a biological, discipline. Many schools even automatically subdivide their biological disciplines (e.g., separate departments of Molecular Biology and Organismal/Ecological Biology) — this certainly gives the average biologist the impression of a “them vs. us” mentality, even within biology (and they all get to ignore geology as “irrelevant”!). Yes, there are some Integrative Biology departments, and I definitely applaud those, but they’re not (yet) the norm. That’s why the few people able to integrate multiple lines as much as possible tend to be held in such high regard — how can we make any advances in the kinds of complex systems Carl describes unless anything is integrated?!?

    Solutions? I sure don’t have any. We could probably pare down the number of journals out there, but few paleontologists could get into, say, biochemical literature and vice-versa, to cite but one example. How many of us can read with complete comprehension every article in an issue of Nature or Science? It’s simply not possible anymore to be well-versed in all science branches — no longer are scientists “naturalists” like they were in the 18th and 19th centuries, when science was in its comparative infancy so the amount of information to master wasn’t nearly as vast in any one subdiscipline. Too many advances have made specialization, and consequently anticosmopolitanism, necessary.

  9. #9 Gamer
    January 6, 2007

    Off topic but this one is stale anyway.

    I’m sure between lecturing, blogging and your real job you don’t have time for playing games but here’s one that might interest you!,1518,455847,00.html

  10. #10 Bruce Thompson
    January 6, 2007

    Biologists really just live and work in a big sand box and there are plenty of toys to play with. Many have learned to share, some only want to play with their own toys, and some think their toys are the only ones in the sand box. But I think it’s important to remember you don’t need toys to play in the sand box. When biologists from different backgrounds with their different toys and start playing together some interesting games get created. I guess the whole point is, toys are fun and there’s plenty of room in the sand box. It’s communicators like you who encourage others to join in the fun and play in the sand box.

    You are quite right to point out that perhaps we need to gather around a coelacanth and all have a feel. Perhaps with a little squeeze the unfortunate wording some use can be avoided and the blind men can arrive at a consensus.

New comments have been disabled.