Goodbye Biology

Goodbye textbook. Goodbye lab kit.

On Saturday I sat for the final exam for Biology 1009, by my calculations, the last multiple choice test I will ever have to take. Assuming I passed.

I know as much biology as I will ever know, likely all I will ever need to know. I don’t regret learning it. And I don’t mean to imply that it’s the last thing I will ever learn – life itself will continue to throw any number of tests at me, every year. It’s just that I am SO MUCH better prepared for those kinds of tests.

I took this biology course online through the University of Minnesota (why is another story) and it has been torture. The lectures were recorded by Rob Brooker, author of the textbook you see here, a fine educator, and a research scientist passionate about his work, and about biology education. But learning science in isolation is not the way to go. I suppose learning anything in isolation is sort of missing the point – there’s no give and take about ideas, no one to help you question your thinking until you submit a paper or quiz for the points you are trying desperately to accumulate. I kept a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species with my textbook, and I read that elegant prose as often as I could.

I did enjoy the labs. For the first one, I went to the biology lab at the university and played around with the microscopes. (I had one as a kid, and had almost forgotten that. I think I was interested in it until the year I got a rock tumbler.) For the rest of the labs, I used a hand lens — dissecting dicot and monocot flowers, charting the morphology of milkweed bugs growing in a glass jar in my kitchen. I even made yogurt and kimchi, and learned to test the pH of both. The yogurt was edible; the kimchi was not.

The day before the final, I reviewed my notes a few times (no, I wasn’t cramming – I spent a week reviewing a unit at a time) and then I walked to a neighbor’s house for the annual Apple Night celebration. In my pocket I had two charts I still needed to memorize: the taxonomic groups and the geological timescale. And bless my neighbors – every time I pulled out my notes, someone quizzed me, until by the time I walked home, I knew the material pretty well.

But here’s the thing that bothers me. For the first time, I was absolutely not inspired to write in any way, shape or form, about science. And I love science. I love the big ideas of science, the patterns, the history of human endeavor in science. I read biographies of scientists. I’ve written essays based on geology, astronomy. But I had to work so hard to grasp the rudimentary concepts of chemistry and biology that I had no room for any creativity at all. I’m hoping that will come later. Georgia O’Keefe has pretty much covered the resemblance of female genitalia to flowers, and understanding her work did help me with the flower dissection lab.  I hope I can write more about the connections between ancient life, animal life, our life.

No one will ever say it better than Mr. Darwin:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”  


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