“No one likes an outsider. They know it all, haven’t paid their dues, and often think little of the rules everyone else has been required to play by….” With these words in the preface, the editors set the stage for an interesting group of essays about contributions to the field of biology by those who were not trained in the field of biology in which they had an impact. The titles of the sections demonstrate the variety of fields from which these contributors arose. Areas outside biology include physical sciences, mathematics, human sciences, and computer science. One section is devoted to those who were trained in one specialty of biology but made contributions in other fields of biology.
In the introduction, the editors describe biology as being the “middle ground between the physical and exact sciences, on one hand, and the social sciences and humanities on the other.” The essays in the book demonstrate how that statement can be true. The introduction also provides much food for thought. There is an expectation that the reader will come away with new thinking about biology and how it is studied; why outsiders are so important to the progress made in biology; and the process of innovation. The editors help the reader visualize biology by characterizing biology as a duck-billed platypus, an aquatic mammal with some bird-like characteristics, a chimera. Throughout the introduction, reference is made to chimera-like characteristics of the science of biology.
How has biology benefited from this cross-pollination of various fields of study? Who are these “outsiders”? Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur, Felix d’Herelle, and Samuel Butler did not begin their work in science through the study of biology. Erwin Schrodinger, Linus Pauling, and Walter Goad from the physical sciences used their expertise to develop molecular biology. The contributions of mathematicians R. A. Fisher, Robert MacArthur, and Nicholas Rashevesky provided statistical approaches and mathematical modeling to move biology understanding forward. Linguist Noam Chomsky, writer Elaine Morgan, and philosopher David Hull demonstrate that there are various ways to approach understanding biology. Biologists whose initial work was in a different field who made significant contributions in other fields of biology include Ilya Metchnikoff, who moved from evolutionist to immunologist, and Francois Jacob, who moved from bacteria to mouse embryos to develop the idea of model systems. The use of informatics in biology was developed through the work of John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener, George Price, and Drew Endy.
Each chapter includes a black-and-white photograph of the individual described in the essay. The authors of each chapter portray the personality of the individual and how that personality allowed the move from “outsider” to contributor in the field of biology. For many of these “outsiders,” their personalities not only allowed them to make inroads, but also restricted their contributions. Reading about these scientists from this perspective shines an interesting light on the work of scientists. Sharing some of these stories with your students can help them see how life’s experiences can help them understand the process of biology study. One example is Walter Goad, a physicist working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Goad developed an interest in applying his numerical and statistical skills to biological problems. Using these skills to build mathematical models for biological systems, Goad was a key person in developing GenBank, the National Institutes of Health collection of all DNA sequences publicly available today.
A major disappointment is the lack of female examples. Of the 19 individuals described in the essays, only one was a woman, a feminist writer. Her contribution is significant in that she was one of the first authors to point out that anthropological theories reflected a male bias. However, the author of this chapter points out that Elaine Morgan’s work was not accepted as scientific until it was “stripped of her sharp feminist wit and dissociated from Morgan herself and repackaged as legitimate science.”
Although the chapters are similar in structure, some are more difficult to read because of the nature of the information that is being conveyed. Some chapters contain more jargon specific to the field, and those not acquainted with the language of the field will have difficulty.
Despite these shortcomings, the book offers the image that biology has evolved by various pressures exerted by “outsiders” and the challenges they met along the way. The book also demonstrates that the chimera that is biology continues to evolve through connections built by individuals with diverse professional backgrounds.