DREAMERS, VISIONARIES, AND REVOLUTIONARIES IN THE LIFE SCIENCES.
I have always been intrigued by scientists who were able to think outside established paradigms to advance scientific knowledge, and I have always wondered what gives them this ability to think outside the box. For example, what convinced Barbara McClintock that chromosomes could be broken and rejoined, whereas the rest of the scientific community believed that intact chromosomes were critical for passing on genetic information properly? What gave Judah Folkman the stubborn persistence to pursue anti-angiogenic molecules when they eluded him for so long, and the rest of the scientific community thought he was pursuing a phantom? Questions like these piqued my interest in Dreamers, Visionaries, and Revolutionaries in the Life Sciences, which explores scientists whose work, theories, or methods made them stand out from their peers as something other than "run of the mill." This is the third book in a series of three, the first of which focused on scientists whom editors Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich describe as rebels, mavericks, and heretics. The second focused on innovative, outsider scientists. This book highlights eighteen individuals the volume's editors deem scientific dreamers, visionaries, and/or revolutionaries. The eighteen people are divided into six subdisciplines: evolutionists, medicalists, molecularists, ecologists, ethologists, and systematizers, placing three in each subdiscipline, although many could well be placed in more than one of these groupings.
The eighteen individuals highlighted range from historically important scientists (Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) to scientists whose contributions are quite recent (David Sloan Wilson). They include scientists who followed a typical educational and professional pathway, such as Ilana and Eugene Rosenberg, to those whose pathway was quite atypical, such as Jane Goodall who skipped a bachelor's degree altogether. The dreamers, visionaries, and revolutionaries even include Mary Lasker, who was not a scientist at all but an important health advocate.
Among my favorite chapters is "Jonas Salk: American Hero, Scientific Outcast" (chap. 5), whose hero was Louis Pasteur because Pasteur conquered disease using creativity, perseverance, and concern for humanity (p. 85). Salk's life was shaped, in large part, by stories of pogroms, witnessing the 1918 flu pandemic, and his Jewish faith, which taught him that people are defined by the good works they do. He was ambitious, meticulous, tenacious, persistent, and took calculated risks. He had the audacity to challenge the science of the day. He questioned dogma. He was able to envision a world in which diseases such as polio were not a threat.
Other favorites include the chapter describing Mina Bissel's work on extracellular matrix and signaling molecules, which compelled scientists to consider both genes and cellular environment to explain cell behavior. I learned that Ilana and Eugene Rosenberg's work led to the explosion in our understanding and interest in microbiomes, and that it was the vision of Margaret Dayhoff that laid the groundwork for the sequence databases many of us depend on today. Visionaries Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, John Todd, and James Lovelock still have important lessons to teach us as we face increasingly alarming global environmental crises.
I appreciated the number of women included--six if you include Ilana Rosenberg (the subject of chapter 18, along with her husband). The authors often pointed out that these women worked around family obligations and that these outside responsibilities did not hamper their scientific contributions. Rather, in many cases, being mothers gave these women eyes to see what others missed. I noted that many of the subjects benefited from interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary work--something those of us at liberal arts institutions should advertise! The visionaries were creative, thoughtful, and passionate. They welcomed competing/alternative viewpoints and collaboration. As outcasts themselves, many of the dreamers in this book were extraordinarily inclusive.
The book ends with an epilogue in which Joan Roughgarden insightfully identifies seven distinct features of scientific dreaming and dreamers. The first feature is that "scientific dreamers sense that something is wrong, dreadfully wrong, with contemporary science" (p. 305). Her claim reminded me of a sermon series my pastors recently led at our church. They dedicated their 2019 Lenten sermons to lament. In one sermon focusing on Lamentations 2, our pastor argued that to be a visionary, a person must practice lament because in lament, we envision a world more like the one God desires, and we are compelled to act in such a way as to bring our current reality more in line with that vision--with God's vision. A Christian in the Reformed theological tradition, I see common grace at work in the lives of the subjects of the eighteen chapters of this book. Whether these scientists were people of faith or not, they saw something that was dreadfully wrong with how we interpret the world, with the human condition, or with how we interact with the natural world. Then, they used science as a tool to right the wrong they identified. Perhaps this is a lesson for Christians who want to integrate faith and science meaningfully. Practice lament, identify places in our world that do not match God's intent, and use science to work to make reality more closely match God's vision.
I will recommend this book to graduate students and undergraduate students with an eye on graduate school as an incentive to embrace the features of scientific dreamers, visionaries, and revolutionaries.
Reviewed by Sara Sybesma Tolsma, Professor of Biology, Northwestern College, Orange City, IA 51041.
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|Title Annotation:||HISTORY OF SCIENCE|
|Author:||Tolsma, Sara Sybesma|
|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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