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Author: Sandy Knapp
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Origin Day lecture: Sandy Knapp response

Updated Tuesday, 24th November 2009
Sandy Knapp offers a response to Professor Wilson's lecture

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Armand Leroi

Sandy - Sandy Knapp is one of our most distinguished botanists, she is a Senior Researcher at the Natural History Museum at the Department of Botany.  She’s a specialist on the nightshade family, the solanaceae, and the author of several books, including one which she tells me is called Potted Histories, which has won awards.  She is, she now tells me, interested in the history of plant domestication and spends her time going around the markets of London looking for odd-shaped aubergines.  It is of course a very Darwinian enterprise, as Randal will tell you, because Darwin loved an odd gooseberry or two.  Sandy.

Sandy Knapp

Thank you Armand, and it’s a great privilege to be here, because this is a very special room because not only is this a room that Huxley spoke in, but it’s a room in which science has been made accessible and available to everyone, and I think that’s something that Darwin also thought was very important. 

And in listening to Professor Wilson, I was struck by thinking about The Origin in a couple of different ways, is we talk about biology today, we talk about what this science is that Darwin was involved in, you know, the science that Darwin started, and we call it biology today but Darwin would not have called himself a biologist.  He would have called himself a natural philosopher, which you'd say today a natural philosopher, what’s a natural philosopher, there’s no philosophy in this, this is about science, philosophy’s over there in the humanities bit and science is over here.  But Darwin called himself a natural philosopher because natural philosophy was essentially the science of what today we might call natural history, which is the biology of the 19th century. 

Now biology, and this is a little aside, as biology was actually a word that was invented two generations before Darwin wrote On The Origin of Species, and it was invented by that great French biologist Jean Baptiste Monet, le Chevalier de Lamarck, who’s always held up as the straw man against Darwinism, Lamarckism.  So Lamarck himself invented this word biology, and I would argue that The Origin, whose publication we’re celebrating today, is actually the premier synthetic work in the 19th century about biology.  And it emphasised, it was a synthetic work, it pulled things together from all types of different areas in what we would today call biology, in what then would have been called natural history, notwithstanding those things which Peter has said that were left out. 

But since the 19th and early 20th century, as biology has expanded, since we've discovered more and more about smaller and smaller levels of organisation of the living world, biology itself as a discipline has become more and more specialised.  People have become, I mean I'm a specialist, as Armand said, in the nightshade family, well you know, I mean honestly, what a thing to be a specialist in.  But we've become more and more specialised so we have people who understand the workings of single genes, we have people who look at the taxonomy of single types of families, we have people who look at the mathematics of particular interactions between things, and as time has gone on those areas of biology have become almost ghettoised into little tiny holes, into shoeboxes.  So as specialisation increases, we also lose that broad set perhaps of skills which biologists or natural historians might want to have. 

And what’s happened, I think, from my perspective as what I would call, would characterise as a latter day natural historian, is that field biology, or the actual observation of the world around us, this look through biodiversity, has become subordinate to laboratory biology or what might be called problem solving.  And Professor Wilson in that very inspiring address which touched on life, the universe and everything - and I hope I can watch it again and again because he said so many interesting things, it’s really hard to pick out just a few - is he characterised today’s biology as almost composed of two species, two tribes of people; that tribe which he called the problem solvers who answer the kind of How questions, and that tribe of people who are called the naturalists, he called them the naturalists, who answer the Why questions.  And he said, at the risk of oversimplification, naturalists discover problems that problem solvers solve, and therein to me lies that binary problem with biology today, is that we see this as being separate, as being two different ways of looking at the world. 

And last night I went to a lecture at the NaturalHistoryMuseum which looked at ocean acidification, and the lecturer, Harry Elderfield from CambridgeUniversity, said the trick is to study the right things.  And he’s absolutely right, the trick in all good science is to study the right thing, whether it be the right problem or the right organism. 

And looking at it that way, Darwin’s natural history, or Darwin’s biology, as he wrote about it in The Origin, looks astonishingly modern.  It was integrated across a large number of levels, albeit fewer levels than we understand about today, he didn’t understand about cells or about genetics or about macro molecules, but he did look at ecosystems, he looked at the interaction of things, and he tried to integrate across all of these levels.  And it could be said that what Darwin was doing was presaging what became in the early 20th century the study of space, form and time, which could be said to be the central question of all of biology, is how do space, form and time interact on a number of different levels.

So no one person today could potentially do what Darwin did with The Origin, but I would argue that actually if you look at The Origin and how Darwin put that together, he didn’t do that on his own.  He wrote the book, yes, but he depended upon many of the ideas that he pulled together, came from the thoughts of other people, and what he did so fantastically is he synthesised.  I would characterise Darwin as the great synthesiser, so he also worked in what today’s modern institutional management speak would be called a team.  We’re all into teambuilding, but Darwin had a team, his team was multidisciplinary, multi-level, multi-language, multi-culture, and it stretched far and far beyond just the confines of his place in Down.  I mean it’s interesting to think that in writing The Origin Darwin very rarely ventured out of rural Kent, but actually his stretch reached much farther than that.  So I think one of the challenges today is not how we define the different types of biology, but how can we as a community of biologists, which has become much more multi-level and is in need of synthesis, is how do we do what Darwin did with The Origin, how do we synthesise biology today? 

Armand Leroi

Indeed, thank you very much Sandy.



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EO Wilson Professor EO Wilson's lecture to mark Origin Day


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