Outsider Scientists: Routes to Innovation in Biology

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Outsider Scientists: Routes to Innovation in Biology

Wed Jul 30, 2014 5:36 am (PDT) . Posted by:

“Jay Feierman” jrfeier

Outsider Scientists:Routes to Innovation in Biology
Oren Harman & Michael R Dietrich eds 2013
Univ Chicago Press


Life science can start to feel like a pretty insular world to those who
spend countless hours at lab benches.
Specific disciplines operate inside of conceptual silos, PIs from diverse
fields suckle at the same crowded NIH teats, and a limited cadre of
thought leaders set research priorities for decades within some areas of

It’s helpful, then, to remember that the life sciences have been shaped &
promoted by non-biologists.
That’s the crystalline message of Outsider Scientists, a collection of
essays edited by science historian Oren Harman & science philosopher
Michael Dietrich, who compare biology to “a duck-billed platypus ‹
something that appears chimeric, yet is fully rooted in its own historical
lineage of accumulating adaptations, tinkering & change.”

The essays are portraits of those tinkerers who shaped biology without
first amassing pedigrees in the fields they impacted.
Harman & Dietrich cleverly parse these sketches into 6 parts:

  • outsiders before the discipline of biology even coalesced as a science,
  • outsiders from the physical sciences,
  • outsiders from mathematics,
  • outsiders from the human sciences,
  • insider-outsiders (biologists who switched fields within the life
    sciences) &
  • outsiders from informatics.

Each section introduces the reader to voices that have changed &
challenged biological dogma throughout the centuries:

  • some of the names are familiar & canonical: Mendel, Pasteur, Pauling,

  • others are less so: Nicolas Rashevsky, Elaine Morgan, Ilya Metchnikoff.
    Each portrait, though, is a fascinating look at how the uninitiated (or
    semi-initiated) are sometimes precisely the right people to inject fresh
    thinking into this ever-morphing field of scientific inquiry.

Erika Lorraine Milam pp.223-237
Dunking the Tarzanists:
Elaine Morgan and the Aquatic Ape Theory