Taxonomy of Biologists

As an exercise in futility, The Daily Transcript tries to categorize disciplines of the life sciences. Although there is a general air of truth to what he’s saying, the problem is that, unlike the members of the Tree of Life, academic disciplines are free to hybridize and accumulate and change, so instead of blurry but recognizable terminal branches, you end up with an anastomosing rete, and no one can sort out precisely who is what.

For instance, I’ve got training as a neurophysiologist (electrodes everywhere!), a cell biologist (painting organelles different colors and watching the glowing cells move), and a developmental biologist (which, contrary to Palazzo’s description, is actually the Most Important Discipline in Biology; he’s also wrong about killing fetuses, sometimes we just like to muck ’em up so they’re horribly deformed.) Oh, and I’ve had a smattering of genetics, but it was all developmental—real geneticists are kind of the mathematicians of biology, all very abstract and peculiar and mostly incomprehensible.

I also notice the bench biologist’s bias in his classification scheme. No ecologists? An article on taxonomy with no taxonomists?


  1. says

    Why is it that genetics attracts the most mathematical sorts, usually? Is it because elementary genetics is relatively mathematically tractable? I’m no mathematician but I thought it would be interesting to one day apply topological or ideas more to development and so on. Mind you, I think it has been done, so it would only be continuing the work of (as I recall) Turing and Thom.

  2. says

    What happened to the sort of biology where people wander around outdoors and actually look at real critters in their normal habitat?

  3. says

    No kidding he’s oversimplified it. He seems to think that microbiology is just a grab bag of people using microbes to study genetics or something (or worse, to cash in on bioterrorism hype). Some of us are actually interested in microbes for their own sake – there’s lots more diversity in the microbial world than among plants or animals (even among cephalopods)

  4. QrazyQat says

    What happened to the sort of biology where people wander around outdoors and actually look at real critters in their normal habitat?

    When I was a kid in the 50s I wanted to be a zoologist (well, my first choice was to be a bear, but I thought that might not work out). But I was told — as an elementary school kid — that general zoology was dead and that you had to specialise in some teeny segment of the discipline. When I grew up what I’d wanted to do was big time, usually called ecology.

    Moral: just do what you want to do, kids. Be a bear, try it, if it doesn’t work out you can always change paths.

  5. says

    From the daily transcript

    I have been often asked what the differences are between the various subdisciplines of the biomedical (or “life”) sciences.

    I think the operative word there is biomedical.

  6. says

    random interjection: This was interesting, the Archbishop of Canterbury saying no creationism teaching in schools. His basis is that science has nothing to do with religion, and teaching it alongside science lessens it, but who cares, at least it’s one idiot religionist getting on the side of keeping voodoo class out of schools.

  7. says

    QrazyQat: awesome point. i’ve been trying to convince my daughter of that for years. She just told me she wants to go to Africa next summer….eep! This at a fundraiser for her trip to Ensenada. She’s 13…I shoulda kept my mouth shut.

  8. says

    What happened to the sort of biology where people wander around outdoors and actually look at real critters in their normal habitat?

    I do some of that. Most of my work is in the lab, but I address questions about real insect populations and communities at multiple levels. I’d say that my subspecialty toolbox includes entomology, ecology, evolutionary biology, animal behavior, molecular and population genetics, microbiology, and smatterings of applied chemistry and math.

  9. wswilso says

    Years ago, someone gave me the “Liberal Arts Majors’ Guide to the Natural Sciences”:

    1. If it’s green or wiggles, it’s Biology.
    2. If it smells bad, it’s Chemistry.
    3. If it doesn’t work, it’s Physics

  10. wildlifer says

    Talk about miffed!!
    Ecology w/emphasis in herpetology is my bag, but I work in the feild w/aves …. I get to do what Alex said!! :-)

  11. John says

    Genetics attracts the more mathematically inclined because it appears to be simpler than developmental biology. You know, genes are particles (like in physics) that behave accoring to simple Mendelian rules, so it’s easy to model, unlike development. Modeling development is a real mathematical challenge. Alan Turing, a mathematical genius, was one of the first to give it a shot.

  12. Henry says

    Add me to the list of outraged herpetology buffs. Plus what about *proper* organismal-level stuff, such as biomechanics (my field). We get to watch animals move, spend years digitizing the videos of said movement, and then make robots that suck up half our grants only to explode the moment they’re turned on. ;-)

  13. lindsay says

    I’m with Henry, what about the biomechanists?? (My field too!) They have been very important in understanding many aspects of animal physiology, not to mention organisms’ interactions with their environments.

    If it weren’t for them, we would still have no idea how squid move! Yeay for muscular hydrostats! :-D

    And when those robots *don’t* explode, they are totally badass. :-)