Posted by: Dan | February 17, 2007

So You Want To Become a Biologist

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I heard about On Becoming a Biologist a few months ago on A Blog Around the Clock, and was impressed by Bora’s description of the book. Reading it myself, I can see why – this should be absolutely required reading for any biologist at the beginning of his or her career. John Janovy, Jr. speaks from decades of experience as an organismal biologist, and it shows. He speaks with less authority to myself, the cell and molecular biologist, but much of what he says is applicable to me as well.

Bora offers a description that I’d agree strongly with, but I will add some select passages, quoted below the fold:

Page 3:

Humanity as a whole does not seem to share the values of a biologist. This difference is not surprising when you consider the following: Most biologists perceive the human species as only one of the more recent of millions that have occupied the biosphere over the last three and a half billion years, and therefore have enormous interest in the nonhuman components of the natural world.

This view of humanity as a late intruder – perhaps the price of becoming a biologist – is in stark contrast to the values associated with other professions. Attorneys, physicians, businessmen – all are consumed by human activities, conflicts, desires. The collective introspection that marks our species is enforced by these professions. A biologist studies “nature,” however, and in doing so inevitably comes to regard humanity as the most effective competitor for the world’s resources. The conclusion must be tinged with admiration: No other species’ accomplishments approach humanity’s accelerating cultural evolution, which in essence represents an escape from the “restrictions” of organic change. But the conclusion must also be tinged with sorrow, for no other species seems to possess the power to destroy overnight what cannot ever, anywhere in the universe, to our knowledge, be replaced. To become a biologist is to adopt and live with this set of conflicting realizations.

Page 41:

With the recognition of desire as a driving force, we begin to get a clue as to what motivates satisfied biologists: They love what they are doing. More often than they will admit, their love is for the organisms themselves. SUch feelings tend to slip out around tables at Friday afternoon watering holes and in seminars presented away from home. An ecologist anxious to maintain his place in the reputation dominance heirarchy talks about his “good system to study the interactions of community members,” and drones on about hypotheses, resources, alpha values. Over a beer he says he loves grasshoppers. A young behaviorist among senior scientists expounds economic theory as it applies to foraging strategy. With a pool cue in his hand he talks about sparrows. A comparative physiologist gets funded by proposing studies of molecular exchanges between symbionts and hosts. But he begins a department seminar in awe of Hydra. These stories are so commonplace among professional biologists that they hardly seem worth repeating. To a person who’s never sustained a focused intellectual effort for as long as a decade, however, they reveal a critical element in the life of a biologist: the fundamental love of chosen beast.

Page 83:

At the beginning of a career one steps forward with youthful arrogance; lofty goals are set; work is of stunning importance – if not directly, then in terms of theoretical implications – and upon the horizon stand nothing but grants, important publications, discoveries that shake the scientific world to its very foundations, and generations of admiring disciples. In the visions of some, like a distant FUjiyama, lies a Nobel Prize. All these glories may come to pass. With maturity, however, comes perspective. You will look back on your career a wiser person, aware of your place in history, and you’ll make use of a lifetime of learning to describe what remains to be discovered about the world of living organisms. The humility you achieve need not negate your accomplishments, nor diminish their importance. Instead, it will finally reveal to you the size of the task you set for yourself so many years ago.

Pages 85-86:

You will also teach, by example, patience with, tolerance for, and courage in the face of complexity. Of the lessons that biologists (as opposed to other scholars) have to impart, these are among the most important. The first contact between a child and nature is characterized by wonder, a wonder that is rarely presevered through maturity. Instead, at least throughout most of the developed Western nations, nature comes to be seen by both the general public and political powers as a resource.

The child’s sense of wonder, based on naivete, is almost a form of courage; the child is undaunted by nature because he or she doesn’t know how complex nature is. The true biologist, on the other hand, not only retains wonder and remains courageous, but does so after having gained knowledge of complexity. Applied to teaching, this means your audience will see you at ease with cell structure, ecosystem diagrams, metabolic pathways. Your behavior must induce audience comfort with an apparently formidible set of information. Their conclusion must be: It’s all right to try to understand what I am seeing.

I hope that whets your appetite…



  1. I just knew you would love this book! It is amazing!

  2. Sounds interesting, I might consider becoming a biologist. How about a book swap: I’ll loan you Sagan’s latest book The Varieties of Scientific Experience if you’ll loan me your copy of On Becoming a Biologist.

  3. Sounds good – but I already loaned it to my fiancee to read! I’ll let you know when she’s done with it though…

  4. Eric

    Heres a blog where people can write about a teacher who made a difference in their lives. They can also read and make comments on posts by others.


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