The Genome: An Outsider’s View

Carl Zimmer in Computational Biology:

I am a science writer, and my chief passion is biology. I spend time with biologists of all stripes—computational biologists, paleontologists, biochemists, ecologists, and all the rest. It is a marvelous privilege. But there are times, I must confess, when I feel like I am watching a blind fistfight.

One of the first bouts I witnessed took place in the late 1990s, when I was researching the origin of whales. Whales descend from terrestrial mammals, and made the transition to water between about 50 million and 40 million years ago. In the 1990s paleontologists began unearthing a series of spectacular fossils documenting that transition, including whales with full-blown legs. Functional morphologists joined forces to investigate the transition, studying swimming otters to understand how proto-whales might have moved through the water. I spent a lot of time with scientists such as these. They are naturalists. They have to know a lot of natural history. They have to memorize the details of many species, to understand how the physiology, behavior, morphology, and ecology of each animal add up into an integrated whole. Yet these naturalists also know that they only have a slippery grasp on all of that embodied complexity.

I put what I learned from those naturalists into my first book, At the Water’s Edge. As I was finishing up my manuscript, I began coming across papers in which scientists were taking a radically different approach to the question of whale origins: they were comparing the DNA of whales to that of other mammals.

More here.