Monday, April 6, 2009

Reflections on Darwin: Dr. Michael Sinclair, Census of Marine Life

What can the Census of Marine Life's synthesis activities learn from Darwin's work?

In a recent interview, Darwin enthusiast Dr. Michael Sinclair of the International Scientific Steering Committee of the Census of Marine Life shared his insights on the man, the scientist and his work.

Here are excerpts from the discussion on how census activities can lead to new scientific theories that have larger implications on our understanding of the world:

We do not generally tend to think that census activities generate breakthroughs in our conceptual framework on ecological and evolutionary processes. During the 2008 session on synthesis activities of CoML, in Auckland, (New Zealand), I gave a short talk on the nature of synthesis within ecology and the key role that descriptive work from census activities has played. The examples were the Beagle Expedition “census” by Charles Darwin, the Challenger Expedition under the leadership of John Murray, and the census of a few Arctic islands by Charles Elton. Each of these descriptive biodiversity and biogeographical studies, through synthesis during several years (or decades in the case of Darwin), led to rich new ideas on ecological and evolutionary processes [see endnote].

The Census of Marine Life, a decade long “expedition” by many vessels and scientists, is presently leading to exciting concepts on processes. In contrast to [to scientific exploration in the time of] Darwin, Murray and Elton, the collection process has accelerated, and the number of observations has increased by orders of magnitude. Thus synthesis involves different methodologies, yet time for thinking is still essential. Darwin’s twice daily walks on his “thinking path” are a good model for us to aspire to, as the many census observations are being made available (on Ocean Biogeographic Information System, for example).

The 2009 celebrations of Charles Darwin’s birthday, and of his great book, are very timely for the digestion and interpretation of the results of the census findings. In a final quote from his diary reflecting on the positive aspect of his “Beagle census” (several years away from the comforts of home, taking a global perspective), Darwin states:

as in music the person who understands every note, will, if he also has true taste, more thoroughly enjoy the whole, so he who examines each part of a fine view, may also thoroughly comprehend the full and combined effect.

[Darwin] is encouraging us to take a multi-disciplinary perspective during our search for understanding, and noting that attention to the details is essential for a full understanding of nature.

Source: Interview notes, 3 April 2009

Endnote on Census activities referenced above:

Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, (1831-36), Charles Darwin, zoologist/naturalist, led to Origins of Species

Challenger Expedition, (1873-76), John Murray, oceanographer, led to modern oceanography

Arctic Explorations, (1921-1930), Charles Elton, botanist/ecologist, led to Ecology

Census of Marine Life (2000-2010), marine science/interdisciplinary, will lead to the first complete global Census of Marine Life in 2010

Editor's note:

In upcoming blogs, Dr. Sinclair will reflect on Darwin's influence on music, and lessons we can learn from the ethical dilemmas posed to Darwin as a scientist.