If you’re into any kind of science (or linguistics) you probably already know that the word “biology” breaks down into “the study of life.” You probably also know, from being alive, that “life” has nebulous definitions. And with recent world events you probably know that “science” and “study” mean different things to different people.
So what is biology? What is the point? I can’t speak to any overarching, omnipresent importance of or use for or correct way to do biology. But I can speculate and consider the importance of biology for our collective futures.
If our human species has one defining trait, it’s seeing patterns. Whether it be astrology, gender, or seeing Jesus in a loaf of bread, we pick up on things- whether they’re really there or not. And if our species has one vice, it’s overdoing it. We overfish, overhunt, over-cut-down-trees, make ourselves over-wealthy. How do these two human tendencies play into biological science?
Two negative ways come quickly to mind. (1) Anthropomorphizing and anthro-centrism, and (2) using “science” and “study” as excuses for unfettered “progress” in the same direction. But I don’t want to leave the conversation at the negatives, because that’s not fair to the myriad of biologists and biologist–adjacents who actively try not to fall into those patterns, to whom justice and change and new kinds of progress are as or more important than mitochondria or species or molecules. The world of science is changing as we become more aware of ourselves.
2021 could be a turning point for biology. COVID has certainly generated interest, for better or worse. It’s time we ask ourselves what we read, practice, study, and do biology for.
What Even IS Biology?
Biology connects with and informs lots of disciplines, from botany to neuropsychology to environmental science. Biology includes studying what life is, why we’re alive, what is alive, how life is created and supported, and much much more.
All people have an intimate connection to biology whether they want to or not. The food we eat, the medicine we take, the doctors we visit – these are all informed by biological science.
The Evil Scientist
Scientists get an ironically bad wrap in a lot of science fiction stories. We sew together murderous monstrosities (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein); we build weapons with feelings and lives, made to die (Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It); we create maleficent pulses to destroy human society (Stephen King’s Cell). What about biologists, specifically? I find that people either think we’re hippie tree-huggers or fraudulent pharmacists (more on this later).
Some of science’s bad wrap is deserved. In classical biology, researchers kill tons of the creatures they want to study in order to study them in labs. Biochemists and molecular biologists do work for pharmaceutical companies that create life-saving drugs only to price out people who need them. Science has created mustard gas and the atom bomb. This is where we need to start asking the question of why: Are we researching out of curiosity, or to be in control of the world? Are we experimenting with justice and the health of our planet in mind, or are we experimenting only for our own gain? These are more than just philosophical questions, because they determine where we go from here.
So yes. Science has made mistakes, and science has been careless. Science also has and continues to give us wonderful inventions and discoveries, like the first picture of a black hole, COVID vaccines, mountains of beautiful new species, pre-screening for genetically inherited diseases like breast cancer, clean energy solutions, innovative new remedies for disorders from OCD to diabetes. Just like any discipline, science is as benevolent or cruel as the people who run it. And so we can imagine a new kind of progress if we imagine a new kind of Scientist: one not focused on being elite, one not focused only on money and fame, but instead one who retains the childlike curiosity that led them to science and sees compassion and community as integral parts of science itself. That is the Scientist I want to be. And scientists like this already exist.
So back to that bad wrap. If we choose not to look at ourselves and what we’re doing as scientists, we might go the way of mainstream science fiction. We take things too far, disregard earth’s community, and run ourselves into the ground. But with all the good science has done and all the wonderful scientists I know, I don’t think that’s the only possibility for progress. Not even close.
Hippies versus Pharmacists
It seems like there are two stereotypes for biologists: creepy lab-ridden weirdos who play with microscopes all day and have zero social skills and make billions or become inadvertently famous, or tan travelers who canoe their way across the world into steamy jungles to give tiny bacteria obscure Latin names. I like to simplify this down to the pharmacist and the hippie. Obviously, like every other stereotype (i.e. pattern, i.e. those things we humans spend a lot of time concerning ourselves with) there’s a lot more to biologists than that.
The hippie vs. pharmacist dichotomy seems a lot like the heart vs. brain dichotomy in that neither of them are really real. A hippie is just a cultural icon. Pharmacy is just a job. Your heart and your brain are both just organs and are very much interdependent. (Try thinking without your heart, or pumping oxygen around without your brainstem.)
So what do these fake dichotomies do to biology? Well, first of all, we get taught that right-brain left-brain crap (it’s not total crap – the hemispheres are different actors – but it is oversimplified). We get taught that girls-can’t-do-math-their-brains-don’t-function-that-way crap. We get taught that Scientists are an elite group of genius people who the majority of people will never understand (cue Big Bang Theory).
Second, we separate art and science as if they artists and scientists were prey and predator, respectively. We get told that emotions, the “heart”, art will leave us vulnerable and unhappy while logic, the “brain”, and objectiveness will put us on top. Science is an art form. It’s creative, it’s based on perception, and it’s lasting. Both can define a culture.
It’s pretty weird that people get pushed out of science. Not all people are cut out to be Scientists, but all people should be informed about and able to take part in science. Sites like Zooniverse and expii help connect the average citizen to science, by respectively using their skills and teaching them. The more humans who understand their own biology and the biology of the living world around them, the more diverse perspectives and possible solutions we will have in our arsenal.
Citizen science does exist, but science has become an institution – one that costs money and, in many cases, health. How many people could be contributing to the world’s progress but can’t afford or don’t want a Master’s or a PhD? How many people are fantastic intelligent people but get put down for not being Doctors? (I had a professor in that particular situation.) When we purposely make biology hard to access, elite, we open the door for misinformation and distrust.
I would love to live in a world where biology is for all. Where people know about the plants, animals, and microorganisms that surround them and are able to coexist safely and happily with them. Where people are able to care for their bodies and understand what their bodies need. Where people are able to grow (at least some) of their own food and understand what they’re eating. Where the mowed suburban yard is obsolete and replaced by native plants and creatures.
Why Science Needs to Change (and can, and is)
The world is changing. It’s always changing, but right now it’s really changing for a lot of people. We have police brutality caught on tape; we have televised calls for racial and gender justice; we have a global pandemic killing hundreds of thousands, and related to that we have a new type of vaccine. Science has and will continue to make mistakes but we can choose now, with the eyes of the world on the scientific community, to change for the better. We need to ask ourselves why we do science and how we do science because I believe biology can and should be to protect and improve the universe we were all born into. ✿
Sources and Resources
Things I used to inform & inspire this article, other than my own experience: