Today, I gave my final lecture in developmental biology this term. We have one more class session which will be a final discussion, but I’m done yapping at them. Since I can’t possibly teach them everything, I offered some suggestions on what to read next, if they’re really interested in developmental biology. They’ve gotten the fundamentals of the dominant way of looking at development now, that good ol’ molecular genetics centered modern field of evo-devo, but I specifically wanted to suggest a few titles to shake them up a little bit and start thinking differently.
For the student who is interested in the field, but doesn’t feel that development is necessarily their discipline, I recommended Richard Lewontin’s The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s short, it’s easy, and it’s a good counterweight to the usual gene-happy approach we see in developmental biology.
Since we are a liberal arts university, and we value a philosophical approach in addition to the usual bluntly pragmatic tactics we follow in the sciences, I also recommended one work of philosophy: The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by Susan Oyama. That one is not an easy read, except maybe to the more academically minded. I mentioned that Developmental Systems Theory does not have the powerful research program that is making evo-devo so successful, but it’s still a usefully different way of thinking about the world.
If any of my students wanted to go on to grad school in developmental biology, and hoped to make it a profession, I had to tell them that they are required to read D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s old, it’s a little bit weird, but it’s still a major touchstone in the discipline.
Lastly, I told them that there was one more book they had to read if they wanted to consider a career in development: Developmental Plasticity and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by Mary Jane West-Eberhard. If I were a young graduate student in the field right now, I think I could just open that book to a random page and find an interesting and challenging research problem right there. I might have to flip through a few dozen pages before I found one that wasn’t impossibly hard, but hey, it’s one of those books that fills you in on the array of issues that people are worrying over at the edge of the science.
I don’t think any of these would be a good foundation for an undergraduate course (either Thompson or West-Eberhard or Oyama would probably have a lethal effect on the brain of any unprepared student trying to plow through them), but they’d be great mind-stretchers for any student planning to move on.
So all my lecturing is done for the term, and all that’s left are monstrous piles of grading that will grow ominously in the next week and a half even as I struggle to keep up, and then I can try to polish it all off by Cephalopodmas.