Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Learning from Darwin - the naturalist approach

An 1871 caricature following publication of Darwin's The Descent of Man. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was one of the most famous naturalists, whose scientific studies included geology, botany, palaeontology, human evolution and more. Image: Public Domain.

I've recently been branching out in terms of topics to write about. I contributed to the Science Borealis blog with two posts: one on rivers and their interaction with the environment, and one reviewing a podcast by CBC on earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest. Whereas earthquake science has always been close to my heart, rivers were not something I used to spend lots of time thinking about. Yet, it has been a very rewarding experience that allowed me to think scientifically about a new topic. It also made me wonder whether as scientists we should be more aware of the old school way of doing science. There was a time when scientists weren't seismologists, or volcanologists, or evolutionary biologists, but really "naturalists", who studied many different things a once, often leading to a less detailed but more complete picture of the world.

On the one hand, we need specialists. It takes time and effort to research the tiniest detail that could push humanity forward. As small as some advances in science seem, it takes years to build the detailed background knowledge to get to that point of understanding.

On the other hand, science couldn't survive without generalists. Inevitably, if time is spent digging deeper and deeper into a particular subject, it becomes more difficult to keep an eye on other branches of our field of study, discipline, or science in general. Without somebody to tie together the big picture, it is easy to get lost in the details of a small subfield of science. Without looking into other disciplines, we may be wasting time by reinventing something that has already been successfully applied in a different context.

In a way, specialists are the pieces and generalists the glue, that holds everything together. As an individual, striking a balance between the two can be tricky. Is the specialist vs. generalist a career decision that needs to be made early on and cannot be reversed? Is this a black or white decision, or can there be a grey area where we place ourselves somewhere along a continuous spectrum between two extremes? How do we interact with each other along this spectrum, and do we need to consider this when assembling scientific projects and teams? Are certain personalities more drawn towards or suited for one or the other?  And last but not least, at times of "publish or perish", can we sustain being generalists without sacrificing our careers, when it may be much easier to publish continuously by becoming an expert in a small discipline and continue building research in the same direction? I would love to hear your thoughts, as comments, or messages, or in whichever way.

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