"The idea that what is visible to us is all that exists is, perhaps, comforting; how else to explain how easily we accept that we know the world, that there is nothing new left to find?"
Rob Dunn '97, Every Living Thing: Man's Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys (2009)
"These are our true circumstances. We live on a tiny ball of rock and dust, in a cosmos vast beyond our imagining."
Carl Sagan, quoted in Every Living Thing
"We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as, for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes. This was not the light in which I hoed them. The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment!"
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
In his book Every Living Thing, Rob Dunn '97 describes a shock of life. In 1977 geophysicists in a three-person submersible (christened Alvin) seeking hypothetical deep-sea hot-water vents found some on the ocean floor nearly two miles beneath the surface. A find more satisfying, perhaps, than surprising, given the theoretical postulation, and some anecdotal evidence, of the vents' existence.
The shock was what they observed around the vents: LIFE! Where conventional wisdom held none could exist! And lots of life: clams (huge), crabs, tapeworms (in Technicolor), curious fish, and more. "More life per square inch of habitat, it would later turn out, than nearly any place on Earth," wrote Dunn. Life in a place where life couldn't live-too cold, too hot, too much pressure, too few resources. Life too deep for the penetration of life-giving sunlight; life too abundant for the fall of life-sustaining "marine snow," the dead things from the lighted layers above. How could this, well, be?
Quite unexpectedly, the deep wasn't dead! And Dunn goes on to relate the work of two microbiologists to figure out why. (You'll have to read the book to learn about that search and discovery.) Those microbiologists, wrote Dunn, "shared the vision that microbial life was far more widespread, interesting, and complex than is usually appreciated. They were, at the moment that the Alvin returned with samples, as in many other important moments in their science to follow, ready for what they would find."
Ready for what they would find. Ready ...
Dunn and fellow alumnus Jeff Wilson '91 returned to Kalamazoo College and connected a state of readiness with a liberal arts background. They were on campus in the spring to launch the biology department's "Year of Charles Darwin" celebration (2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday, and the 150th anniversary of publication of his seminal work On the Origin of Species). Wilson is a paleontologist and dinosaur discoverer (the "various mansions of the universe" exist in time as well as space).
Dunn, at the other end of a spectrum in terms of size-of-scientific-subject, is an ant specialist. Both scientists are gifted teachers (Wilson at University of Michigan, Dunn at North Carolina State) who can talk to laypersons about their science in a way that makes their work understandable and compelling - Margaret Mead's measure of subject mastery.
Consider, first, this notion of "all." Henry David Thoreau, another great generalist (like Charles Darwin) wrote about the great "capacities that have never been measured," the "so little [that] has been tried," and the human tendency to say "this is the only way ... but there are as many ways as can be drawn radii from one center."
Dunn writes that although humankind shouldn't slow its search to know everything, "we ought to be more humble in that endeavor. We ought to leave enough room for awe at what is still possible. After all, a great deal is still possible and will yet be discovered. There are questions we will not answer for a 1,000 years. There are probably questions we may never answer." Put another way, "There are more things in heaven and earth...than are dreamt of in your philosophy." And how does one acquire a readiness for all, and awe?
The liberal arts, Dunn contends, broadens one's base for observation. "If I've studied widely, I'm less likely to miss something," he told Kalamazoo College students. Perhaps "something" is a new species found in your backyard, or desk drawer. Such stories have happened, and Dunn shared a few.
In effect, the liberal arts is the best preparation to find something new, a larger landing strip for observations to alight - one not limited to terrestrial flights. Think interstellar: Thoreau's triangles of a person, a "distinct and different being (citizen of, say, a planet orbiting Aldebaran), and the star they're mutually contemplating. (Dunn's book, by the way, includes some fascinating chapters on bio-astronomy.)
From landing strip to language! The latter is Wilson's metaphor. "Science is in the world and of the world," he said, "and is obligated to talk to the world." Much of the practice of science is writing and reading, "and my work has been deeply influenced by the critical text analysis I learned in Gail Griffin's English classes," Wilson added.
In true liberal arts fashion, "K" requires proficiency in a second language. Interestingly, for Wilson, one of those second "languages" was soccer (he was an All-American and a member of the College's Athletic Hall of Fame). Soccer turned out to be a sort of cultural (if not linguistic) secret handshake.
"Most of my secret handshake moments have been in situations where communication is technically easy," said Wilson, who is proficient in Spanish and French, "but the cultural connection is more difficult. For example, India contains the largest English speaking population in the world, but there are still cultural gulfs that can easily separate people. The World Cup was the secret handshake that broke the ice for me and allowed me to engage fellows with whom I was working. This is also true in Africa and Argentina, where playing, watching, and talking about soccer melts away cultural tensions. It really is an amazing sport." Similarly, in the introduction of his book, Dunn describes his own "soccer-as-a-common-language" moment that took place in the middle of the Amazon.
Wilson noted that a liberal arts undergraduate experience may require some catch up in grad school with students whose preparation was more intensively and narrowly specialized. "But it soon became
"...liberal arts is the best preparation to find something new..."evident to me that the liberal arts was an asset," he added. "The different ways of understanding the world become part of the narratives we use to accomplish scientific field work." Wilson's scientific work focuses on the effects of tectonics (the structural arrangement and movement of rocks in the earth's crust) on dinosaur evolution. He studies the influence of geography - specifically the breakup of Pangea, the prehistoric supercontinent that included the entire earth's landmass in a contiguous whole - on the diversification of dinosaurs.
Aptly, he invoked Darwin as an example of the power of the liberal arts and noted that the father of modern biology's first clue about evolution didn't derive from living finch beaks (think, biology) but instead from the fossils of Pleistocene-age mammals (think, paleontology). "We paleontologists all know that," smiled Wilson. Darwin was no specialist. He wasn't a comparative anatomist, nor particularly knowledgeable about mammals. His liberal arts background had been more pointed toward a country clergyman, a career to which he was indifferent. What set him apart - and made him a great scientist - was his wide ranging and intense curiosity, a gift for close observation, and his great insight: "we [meaning everything in the material world] are all related and we [meaning humans] are not that smart," said Dunn.
His humility did not inhibit his courage to speculate boldly but it did fortify his massing of evidence to support his theory. For 20 years he designed experiments and recorded observations to develop and refine his idea that new species arise from evolution (descent with modification) driven by natural selection (survival of the fittest). Darwin released On the Origin of Species in 1859, in part because another man, Alfred Russel
Wallace, had recently struck upon the idea of natural selection Darwin had been refining for two decades.
Wallace, said Wilson, was the unsettled spirit, the traveler; Darwin the careful experimenter. Perhaps the liberal arts - especially the K-Plan - gives rise to some combination of the two. The more we know how little we know, the more wakeful we are to the new and unexpected, and the bolder our speculation is likely to be. (Some may think "crazy" rather than "bold." Dunn told students that the traits that make a good discoverer also make a good crazy person. Think of how the two microbiologists' speculations on microbial life may have been perceived by their peers before the Alvin returned from the depths.) Curiosity expresses itself in questions that are rooted in an unease of not knowing. The broader our education the greater our potential for unease, for knowing how little we know. Then, we're more ready for (an infinite) all, for fewer mistakes (like a lifeless sea floor), and for better light to hoe.
Rob Dunn (left) and Jeff Wilson near some of the art work (featuring the HMS Beagle and finch beaks) commissioned for the Dow Science Building lectures halls to celebrate the Year of Charles Darwin celebration. The art contest asked that submissions feature themes from evolution and natural selection. The winning tile and painting installations are pictured throughout this article and represent the work of artists Julia Gartrell '08, Alison Lucas '09, and Lenya Friesner '08.