8 January, 2013

Changes, Changes, Changes…

I have come to the conclusion that I am one of a dying breed: an invertebrate zoologist.  There are two reasons for this supposition, the first and most obvious is that I am an invertebrate zoologist who is getting along in years, and sooner or later, hopefully much later, I will shuffle off this mortal coil, and presto…  By being alive 🙂 , and then by being an invertebrate zoologist, I suppose, I am a “dying invertebrate zoologist”.  However, there is another, more subtle reason.  I think the discipline that has been called “Invertebrate Zoology” is disappearing, being eaten from within by the larvae of its successful progeny: other more specialized disciplines.

Courses in, and therefore, the discipline  of, what could be called “Invertebrate Zoology” appeared in universities around the turn of the twentieth century as the modern natural sciences shook themselves out of the earlier realm of study referred to as Natural Philosophy.  About the only remains of the latter these days is the most common terminal degree in the sciences, the Doctorate of (Natural) Philosophy ( = Ph. D.).  The major science disciplines that first appeared were physics, geology, botany, and zoology, concerned, respectively, with the study of: 1) energy, mass, and motion, (physics), 2) the earth (geology), 3) plants and microbes (botany), and 4) animals (zoology).  

Each of these major disciplines encompassed a great deal of disparate study areas, but botany and zoology were the most wildly diverse.  In botany, this overt diversity was dealt with by the erection of microbiology/bacteriology as a separate entity later in the first half of twentieth century.  Zoology, on the other hand, had more of problem, the array of described different animal types – as opposed to simply the number of different animals – was relatively vast, and while they all shared some characteristics, they all were quite different, too.  However, this problem relatively soon solved itself.  As most zoologists studied animals with backbones, or vertebrates, the study of vertebrates assumed “center stage”.  As a result, zoology was informally subdivided in vertebrate zoology, the study of animals with backbones, and invertebrate zoology, the study of everything else.

While vertebrates can be easily defined by their characteristics, it is impossible to set apart or define the invertebrates by some common structure or characteristic shared by all of them.  Instead, the invertebrates were/are defined by what they lack, a backbone.  It really is logically impossible to prove a negative proposition and it is just as impossible to define something on the basis of what it isn’t.   Nonetheless, the convenience of this division was well recognized, and zoologists could be informally divided in vertebrate zoologists and invertebrate zoologists.

Well, that’s enough for today…  🙂

More tomorrow!

Cheers, Ron

2 Responses to “8 January, 2013”

  1. Alex Hirsekorn says:

    Hi Ron,

    I’ve been a fan of the term ‘Natural Philosopher’ ever since reading the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aubrey%E2%80%93Maturin_series). The author was known for his meticulous research on naval life and warfare in the early 19th century but he also extended that research into areas scientific in order to get things right for co-main character Stephen Maturin, a self-described natural philosopher.

    Philosophically yours,

    • Ron says:

      Hi Alex,

      I have also liked the term, ‘Natural Philosopher’; particularly in my case, I have realized that the concept fits me very well. I have very broad interests, I suppose like the old description of the River Platte in the times of wagon trains – “a mile wide and an inch deep”. My career in things academic probably would have benefitted from it being more on the order of “an inch wide and a mile deep”. Oh well, it isn’t get any deeper at this stage. More likely it will show signs of prolonged evaporation. I suspect I should not carry this analogy too far, I might end up being severely depressed. 🙂

      The one place where applying the term to me would fail is that these folks – mostly men, but a few women, were all on the wealthy side of the room. Being a ‘Natural Philosopher’was the avocation of a ‘Gentleman’, and I would certainly never be allowed into that club.