A Bit of History and a Call to Unity

In 1973, a biologist named Theodosius Dobzhansky published an essay that was bold for its time, the title of which, has become a ubiquitous quotation in most biology courses and a unifying mantra for the field. The title was, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, Except in the Light of Evolution”. This was largely an opinion piece describing the importance of evolution in the biological sciences and argued the importance of unifying the biological sciences in practice and in study. Dobzhansky wrote this essay toward the end of a rather tumultuous period when luminaries like E.O. Wilson, the famous naturalist, winner of the National Medal of Science, two time winner of the Pulitzer, and  James Watson, famous biochemist, Nobel prize winner, co-discoverer of the double helical structure of DNA, were in often vitriolic competition over what the future of the biological sciences would be. The naturalists practiced observational ecology, performed field work, and championed their work as the fundamental approach to unraveling the history of life on earth. The biochemists, following the work of teams like Meselson-Stahl and Watson-Crick-Franklin, were seen by many as the future of biology, unlocking the chemical nature of life itself. At the time, Watson and other advocates of the chemistry of life frequently denigrated and often insulted the naturalists and evolutionists, claiming that their’s was a soft-scienc, without the controls of the laboratory, and simply observation from which larger conclusions were little more than conjecture. The naturalists, in turn, claimed that the biochemists were too focused on minutia to be able to see the bigger picture. The feud went beyond a somewhat less than cordial debate on scientific perspective; the distinguished E.O. Wilson once went so far as to describe James Watson as “The Caligula of Biology” and “one of the most unpleasant men I have ever met”. This was not the kind of language Wilson has been known for in his many scientifically brilliant and poetic books and essays.

Dobzhansky’s essay, in part, reflected an attempt to unify these disparate perspectives; he makes the argument that no matter how focused the chemical analysis may be, the mechanism by which it varies is the principle field of the naturalist, evolution. Evolution is the unifying principle of biology and we can only hope to understand it mechanistically through biochemical study. Essentially, the Watson and Wilson factions were both right in their analysis of their own work, but myopic in their disparaging of the other. This unifying principle held for the next thirty years or so, albeit without the full compliment of data necessary to fully prove the merits of this unification. Dobzhansky’s unifying principle was, in a way, hypothetical, the data we’ve gained over the last twenty years, or so, has repeatedly and robustly supported this unification. Since the completion of the human genome project, many more whole genome sequencing projects, the development of massively parallel sequencing, also known as next-generation sequencing (NGS), along with the recent sharp decline of cost and sharp increase in efficiency of NGS platforms, we now have more evidence for the necessity and merit of this unification than previously imaginable. In the last fifteen to twenty years, the scientific community has finally gained the ability to study evolution at the molecular scale with phenomenal clarity and power… But… as is often the case, things are more complicated than they may have initially seemed. On the molecular biology and genomics side of the equation, gene expression analysis, epigenetics, gene signalling, etc. have become of increasing interest and research in these fields has exploded as it has become clear that the DNA sequence alone is insufficient in understanding molecular and cellular worlds of information. On the other side, it has become extremely evident that what was once thought of as “junk DNA” actually holds some of the most compelling and interesting information in the quest to unlock the history of life. In short, we tend to find more problems to solve each time we solve one; all the while, moving forward. The more we accumulate, the more we realize needs to be compiled.

The scientific community of biologists has in many ways, been unified, however, the deluge of information now flowing in from every direction of study too often keeps us compartmentalized as our particular silos of research are just too consuming to allow for branching out. Beyond this, the patent system, competition in academia, funding disparities, and political slights, real and imagined, too often lead to information being silo-ed. Science, at its best, is a simultaneous triumph of cooperation, competition, skepticism, and rugged individualism. When information and methodologies fail to flow freely between groups, the key element of cooperation is lost, competition cannot occur as the claims are too disparate, skepticism lacks relevant expertise for successful analysis, and rugged individualism gets too strong for its own good, rejecting fields of study outside of one’s own. While there are many great biologists out there like Michael Lynch and Neil Shubin, who do an excellent job of intertwining disparate fields of study to deliver a more complete understanding of systems, there are all too often, departments, companies, and industries that should be working together, but simply do not effectively communicate. EQO is founded on the principle that molecular biology and advances made in personalized medicine and next-gen diagnostics can be used in conjunction with ecology techniques to address environmental concerns and better understand ecological systems. There are others in industry and academia that share our perspective on unity and scientific cooperation. We all hope that we can be as forward thinking about unification as Dobzhansky and to use competition to compel better research, as ultimately was the case with Watson and Wilson. We’ll leave out the vitriol and disparity though; stick to the meritocracy of ideas with a heavy dose of collaborative research.