Everything Is The Way It Is Because It Got That Way

There is no denying that the central concept of modern biology is evolution, but I'm afraid I was a victim of the American public school system, and I went through twelve years of education without once hearing any mention of the 'controversial' E word. We dissected cats, we memorized globs of taxonomy, we regurgitated extremely elementary fragments of biochemistry on exams, but we were not given any framework to make sense of it all (one reason I care very much about science education now is that mine was so poor).

The situation wasn't much better in college. There, evolution was universally assumed, but there was no remedial introduction to the topic—it was sink or swim, and determined not to drown, I sought out context, anything that would help me understand all these facts my instructors expected me to know. I found it in a used bookstore, a book that I selected because it wasn't too thick and daunting, and because when I skimmed it, it was clearly written, unlike all the massive dense and opaque reference books my classes foisted on me. It was John Tyler Bonner's On Development: The Biology of Form, and it blew my mind, and also warped me permanently to see biology through the lens of development.

The first thing the book taught me wasn't an explanation, which was something of a relief; my classes were just full of explanations already. Bonner's book is about questions, good questions, some of which had answers and others are just hanging there ripely. For instance, how is biological form defined by genetics? It's the implicit question in the title, but the book just refined the questions that we need to answer in order to explain the problem! Or maybe that is an important explanation at a different level; science isn't the body of facts archived in our books and papers, it's the path we follow to acquire new knowledge.

Bonner also led me to D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson and his classic book, On Growth and Form, which provided my favorite aphorism for a scientific view of the universe, "Everything is the way it is because it got that way"—it's a subtle way of emphasizing the importance of process and history in understanding why everything is the way it is. You simply cannot grasp the concepts of science if your approach is to dissect the details in a static snapshot of its current state; your only hope is to understand the underlying mechanisms that generate that state, and how it came to be. The necessity of that understanding is implicit in developmental biology, where all we do is study the process of change in the developing embryo, but I also found it essential as well in genetics, comparative physiology, anatomy, biochemistry...and of course, it is paramount in evolutionary biology.

So my most fundamental explanation is a mode of thinking: to understand how something works, you must first understand how it got that way.