Eebers and robbers

A year or so ago I was on a review committee for a department of biology. It was a pleasant and productive department, but it soon became apparent to us that it was in effect two departments sharing the same building. One was eeb (ecology and evolutionary biology), while the other was, in their jargon, rob (the rest of biology.) Relations were cordial between the two for the most part but there was almost no interaction nor interest across the divide.

The same divide is increasingly apparent in genetics, genomics, and human evolution. Several years ago a colleague suggested to me that the idea that mathematics is the language of science was no longer very accurate. There are, he said, two languages of science, one being mathematics and other organic chemistry. He was onto something. People who speak mathematics and models, eebers, and people who speak organic chemistry, robbers, are more and more out of touch with each other.

Occasional strife between eebers and robbers is an old problem in biology. A well-known example is the antagonism between EO Wilson, the Patton of eebery, and James Watson, the Rommel of robbery, in the Harvard University biology department several decades ago.

I myself keep far away from the divide. Several years ago an eminent geneticist and developmental biologist graciously sent us a note and a manuscript which, he suggested, we should understand in order to flesh out some suggestions we discussed in our book. I tried and tried to read that paper. My eyes are still a bit crossed, I think, from staring at it, all to no avail. I could never make it in robbery.

Last week John Hawks asked my opinion about Neandertals and ‘4x coverage.’ I started to say that 4 layers of clothing were probably adequate in their cold environment, but the context was not quite right, so I dodged the question. I do intend to look into it and understand what he was talking about, soon.

This is all motivated by a fascinating and well presented if not entirely convincing paper from Peter Parham’s group at Stanford that proposes that several rather common alleles in the HLA system were acquired from related archaic human species, Denisovans in the case of one and Neanderthals in the case of the other. Among eebers in human evolution a current hot topic is adaptive introgression of genes between related species. Much is known about adaptive introgression in plants due in large measure to the work of G. Ledyard Stebbins. More recently a review of introgression in mammals has rekindled interest in the phenomenon.

A stunning aspect of the Parham group paper is that there is not a trace of mention of any eeb at all. It is as if the paper were written in a theoretical vacuum. How can anyone write a paper about adaptive introgression without mentioning Stebbins?

My comments are not really aimed at this particular paper: the literature is full of robbers with blinders and eebers with blinders. This can’t be good for the field. Where are younger scientists who can handle it all, in the mold of people like James Crow and Luca Cavalli-Sforza?

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3 Responses to Eebers and robbers

  1. Steve Sailer says:

    Organic chemistry is a big hurdle for pre-meds. Lots of stuff to memorize. Physics is another hurdle: lots of concepts to grasp

    The Mt. Sinai Medical School keeps a limited number of seats open for people who couldn’t get through organic chemistry and/or physics, typically the children of doctors from nice families:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/30/nyregion/30medschools.html

  2. Julian O'Dea says:

    Not so much organic chemistry as biochemistry.

    I am a robber who is trying to become more of an eeber. I suppose we all find some things easy and others hard. And we can’t understand that others might struggle with what we find easy. I find physiology, biochemistry, histology and so on easy, but anything quantitative, even in ecology or genetics, tends to puzzle me.

    BTW, EO Wilson has admitted to having litlle mathematical facility. Same with Dawkins, IIRC.

  3. In my wife’s molecular biology graduate program, there was another student with a physics bachelor’s degree. This student found the first year course work surprisingly difficult and felt there were unreasonable expectations. My wife’s unvoiced response was “No, the work isn’t too hard. You just don’t have the right preparation. Just because you can do physics doesn’t mean you can do molecular biology.”

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