Brian Goodwin, 1931-2009

It’s sad to see that we’ve lost Brian Goodwin, one of the genuinely original (but not always right!) thinkers of our time. There aren’t many left of the old structuralist tradition in biology, the kind of non-genetic purists who tried to analyze development in terms of the fundamental physical and chemical properties of the organism—they’ve been swallowed up and lost in a triumphal molecular biology research program.

Edge has a nice interview with and essay by Goodwin — they’re good places to start. If that whets your appetite, you should also read his book, How the Leopard Changed Its Spots : The Evolution of Complexity(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), which is aimed at general audiences and is a good overview of why we should look at more than just genes to explain form.

He was an advocate for one view of nature, and I think he missed the mark by neglecting genes as much as he did; we know now that a lot of details of morphology are directly affected in subtle and not-so-subtle ways by the genetics of the organism. But I think we can also make a case that the modern molecular biological approach is also missing a significant element. Every biologist ought to read a little Goodwin, just to leaven their picture of how biology works with his special perspective.