This meeting is really an exercise in attitude readjustment. I’ve been steeped in the zebrafish world for so long that I’ve unconsciously held the model organism perspective — here’s my animal, all I have to do is query it deeply with increasingly thorough techniques, and I shall understand biology. Now I’m in a world where every observation is tested against a dozen closely related species, and a dozen distantly related species, and a dozen outgroups that aren’t even in the same order, and everyone is sprawling out horizontally to get a feel for the dimension of a problem rather than digging down vertically into one convenient animal bred specifically to thrive in the artificial environment of the lab. It feels strange and sometimes uncomfortable.
I’m also sometimes totally lost. I was at a session yesterday where arachnologists were just projecting photos from their personal collections, and where I was content to just think “OK, I guess that’s a spider”, other people were shouting out latin names and recognizing old friends. Or worse, “here’s a spider I haven’t been able to identify, and I consulted the world’s foremost expert, and they had never seen it before either”, and it begins to sink in that we’re surrounded by an immensely diverse population that is so wild and weird that we have no idea who they all are, and that I’m going to have to do a lot of work to catch up. It is intellectually terrifying and bizarrely stimulating.
Every once in a while, fortunately, I find something to anchor myself. Yesterday was all about spider silk, which, on the one hand, is molecular biology and can be reduced to genes and physical interactions with the environment (adhesive droplets on webs are a product of self-assembly, contingent on things like humidity and temperature), but on the other hand, of course spiders produce an incredible diversity of different kinds of silk. Sometimes, it all gets to be a bit much.
Looking at the program, this morning is all about biogeography, diversity, evolution, ecology, and life history, while this afternoon is all about behavior. I’m pretty sure my brain will explode at some point today, because I can assure you that there won’t be any single principle that I’ll be able to condense everything down to.