Why do scientists often follow unforeseen paths? Biologist Niles Eldredge talks with Karina

We met with Dr. Niles Eldredge to discuss ways to help students relax and not fret over their futures, and much more. Enjoy!

Why do scientists often follow unforeseen paths? Biologist Niles Eldredge talks with Karina

Evolution expert Niles Eldredge discusses the winding pathway his interests took and how he found evolution’s “boring details” and geology fascinating, which led him into biology. He shares how ideas in evolution branched out, including his groundbreaking work in punctuated equilibrium, and he counsels why students should relax and not fret so much about their futures.

You just keep your eyes and ears open. You randomly meet people, they randomly tell you things, and you... Sometimes it rhymes, and sometimes it doesn't rhyme.” – Dr. Niles Eldredge

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Top Influential Biologists Today

Karina Macosko’s Interview with Biologist, Dr. Niles Eldredge

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:16.8The road to biology

Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko, from AcademicInfluence.com, and I’m here with professor Eldredge. So professor Eldredge tell us…

…how did you get into the field of biology? And did you know when you were my age for instance, that this was what you wanted to go into?

Niles: Actually, when I was your age, Karina, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was going to go to college. I was pretty good in languages in high school, and I had a vague idea. I wanted to be a lawyer actually. And that was because the guy who had the most money in the neighbourhood was a lawyer. [chuckle] And I also liked the TV show Perry Mason, I’m not even kidding. I had no real idea.

My first decision once I got to college and I was a freshman that I was, I remember it was in the spring semester, and the sun was out and people were walking around, it’s a beautiful day and I was trapped in our classroom that was kind of dingy and poorly lit. And I started thinking about the kids outside in the sunshine. And I started thinking about the campus and I said, “Oh, dude, Durham would be a worse life than to spend my life in this kind of a situation”. So it was that kind of a awakening as to that kind of direction I might take before I decided even on a field.

Karina Well, and what do you think was like the moment that you knew? “Okay. Yeah, this is exactly what I want to go into and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life”.

Niles Eldredge: Yeah. Well, as I said, I started out, I was actually, I decided to major in Greek and Latin, but I started dating a young woman from Barnard College across the street, and she knew a bunch of anthropology faculty, and we’re still married by the way though. [chuckle] So that was my first acquisition, I guess in college was a girlfriend who I’ve married and made a life with all my life.

But anyway, I met the anthropologist there and I got interested. And I think from high school, I had a background... I was not a big science student in high school, but I was always intrigued by evolution. And it was always a sort of a theme that was there, but I didn’t even sort of recognise it was there, I was mostly into music and as I say languages and so on. So I started, I met these guys socially, some of these faculty members and sorta got hooked.

I found the boring details to be so utterly fascinating that I have spent my entire life getting as many of the boring details crammed into my brain as I possibly could.” – Dr. Niles Eldredge

So I started studying anthropology in my sophomore year in college, but I also took a, what was represented to me. I had to take a science course. I didn’t see myself as a science person and the easiest science course you can take on a campus, they got course. We called them, I guess we still do was geology. If I could stand... I think the guy told me, “If you can stand the memorisation of all the boring details”. Well, I found the boring details to be so utterly fascinating that I have spent my entire life getting as many of the boring details crammed into my brain as I possibly could. So I’ve remained...

Karina Wow that...

Niles: I’m still a student is really what it is.

0:03:26.2Punctuated equilibrium

Karina Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And you developed a fascinating theory of evolution. Can you explain to us what it is and what it means, really?

Niles: Yeah. Well, it’s actually very simple. It means that evolution, if you look at the history of life and you look at the details of individual species and how they show up when they show up and how they change through time in the rock record, and you see that it’s not that smoothly linear, gradual change that we were led to believe from Charles Darwin all the way down actually. And he got that idea from Lamarck before him. So it was an idea that was first published, I guess, in 1801 by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck , who was a French biologist. And anyway Darwin adopted his gradualistic thinking in the late 1830s. And by the time he finally got around to publishing it in 1859, he had ruled out any sort of other ways of looking at evolution and that’s what it came down to as.

And when I started looking at the rocks and fossils as part of my PhD, so this is the late 1960s now. I couldn’t find that. So I was sort of freaked out. It just scared me because you’re supposed to get positive results. And I wasn’t finding what I was led to believe that I would find.

Karina Right.

Niles: So I just said what I found, which was long periods of really nothing happening to these things through time. And I was dealing with five to... I thought at the time I had as much as 8 million years of time, I guess, and now we think it’s more like 6 million years of time, still a long period of time.

Karina Right.

Niles: And these species, there were several of them. They would not show any real change. Even geographically geographic variation is very important as well. It has had, you know, had been published by my... The previous generation of biologists. So I didn’t find it. What I found was this boring stasis, what we call stasis. And then sort of punctuated by a rap... Periods of rapid change, not such huge amounts of change, but just so you could get new species all of a sudden popping up as if they were budding off something rather than rowing out of the tip of something. If that imagery works.

Karina Wow that is so interesting.

And I’m so curious in order to develop this theory, did you actually go out and do field research?

Niles: Oh yeah.

Karina Or was it mostly looking at what other people had seen?

Niles: No, I went and got my own stuff. I was working at the American Museum of Natural History, which was alive still is with Columbia University. Columbia was the college that... And then the university that I was enrolled in, but most of my work was what is it? 30, 40 blocks farther south in New York city, at the American Museum of Natural History. We had good collections there, but I needed more detail the actual position in the rocks, of where these fossils were. Had not been notated as precisely as I would have liked by the old people who had collected the original specimen. So I really needed my new stuff and I needed to get it on my own.

So I went out with my wife and also with my brother who was in high school, although I think it was 1966 and ’67 driving as far west as Iowa... So working... And up and down the Appalachian mountains, so it was a big expanse. We were in Southern Canada down as far as, I don’t know. Certainly Southern Virginia and further South West Virginia, Kentucky, we went to these places. Wonderful things in Indiana and Michigan, got to see the USA, Dinah Shore used to have a TV show, and she sang, “See The USA In Your Chevrolet.” I think we had a Dodge Dart instead, but anyway, it was terrific because we really got to see the eastern half basically of this wonderful country, and we did it on two successive summers, and it was eye-opening in many, many respects, but what we collected our own specimens.

Karina Oh, wow. And... So just to make sure I got this right, the punctuated equilibrium theory is the punctuated as it happens... Evolution happens all at once, and then there’s long periods where nothing happens, or...

Niles: Exactly. So it’s more like step-wise, those sort of lists. But sudden in geological terms is not sudden like that. So we’re talking about thousands of years, in fact, some geneticist later told me I was overestimating how much time it would take. I was saying 5 to 50,000 years to get a new species once the process started, and that was in geographic-like terms, things would split off from each other and then become isolated, they were isolated physically, and then they would become genetically isolated from each other. So you would get two separate lineages where once you just had the original single one going through time.

Karina And through your findings, did you see that most species go through the punctuated equilibrium all at once? Or is it like one species is going through it at one time, while another is in equilibrium?

Niles: That’s a great question. I was only working on a single lineage, so yes, I only saw this one lineage doing it, I was paying no official attention to... There were several hundreds of different kinds of marine invertebrates that you would typically run across in these quarries, middle Devonian, so it was about 300... What is it now, 380 million years old, we’re talking plus or minus that. And the section of time about maybe 5, 6 million years in total, but there would be brachiopods, brizons, corals, clams, snails, and so on, all these different kinds of things.

My impression was everything else was doing more or less the same thing, which is to say not changing through time, wasn’t the big signal that you see, but I did not... What can I say? I did not formally study them, so I was reluctant to say anything about these other species, and I was talking to a guy called Brett, is his name, he’s had a long career at Rochester and then other universities, he’s in Cincinnati these days, very familiar with the same rocks and he turned to me, I think we were in a Burger King in Hamilton, New York.

He says, “You know, Niles, everything else is doing the same thing. It’s not just your group of trialamine species, it’s the brachiopods and the brizons and everything, they all are remaining the same, so the whole story is the same.” And I said, “Yeah, I kind of thought so, but now that you’re telling me that that’s true, it’s probably true.” [chuckle] So, in it, it’s true, that is basically characteristic of way things evolve, or for the most part, don’t really show much noticeable physical evolution, what’s going on genetically with these things, they’re extinct, who knows. But in terms of what you can see, that anatomy does evolve, but it does so in this manner.

0:10:42.8Advice

Karina Very interesting, and I know there’s a lot of young people who come to AcademicInfluence.com. So what advice would you give to somebody who’s maybe going into college or trying to figure out what they wanna major in, if they’re considering doing something in biology or looking into evolution?

Niles: What should they do now? Well, I actually... See, the world has changed a lot. When I was working at the American Museum, while I was chairman, I helped bring in our first molecular lab there, so I never learned it myself, but I made my kids, my students, learn it [chuckle] So the life has changed quite a bit, and now, the integration of the genetic information, you can extrapolate it through time and so on and so forth, and it’s all part of the picture that was not being considered so actively, at least when I was actually starting out.

But you know my story about myself is I had no clue what I wanted to do. So what I always tell kids that are going to college, I say, “So what are you gonna do?” When our kids went to college, they... At Thanksgiving, sort of traditional, kids come home for the first time, and so we had some parties here and the kids were... Their friends were there, so I was button holding everybody and said, “So what do you want? What do you say?” “I don’t know what I wanted to do.” I said, “Well, that’s great, that’s the whole point.”

…And it's the intention that you bring to it, so it's a good thing, if something is too easy, you don't disparage it…and it's your love for it, your emotional bonding with it, which helps, I think enormously.” – Dr. Niles Eldredge

So you just keep your eyes and ears open, you randomly meet people, they randomly tell you things and you... Sometimes it grabs and sometimes it doesn’t grab. And some kids started out, they were hell-bent on becoming mathematicians or something, and they ended up majoring in English and so on. So I think you gotta find what really calls out, another hint is that I heard somebody denigrate... I can’t remember, I guess it was English, saying, “I’m supposed to be a chemist, I’m supposed to be studying chemistry, but I like English, but it’s too easy.” I said, “That’s a clue. If it’s easy, it means you like it.” ’Cause everything is equally hard, this is... And it’s the intention that you bring to it, so it’s a good thing, if something is too easy, you don’t disparage it, like Jal, he’s a guy in a course. Well, I’ll tell you, if you get deeply enough into it, it’s not that easy, but it’s not that difficult either, and it’s your love for it, your emotional bonding with it, which helps, I think enormously.

0:13:16.3Sign off

Karina Well, thank you so much Professor Eldredge, I hope that a lot of people will find comfort in what you said, because I don’t think any of us really know what we’re doing.

Niles: You gotta relax when you get there, I know there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on you. My niece, she ended up... Oh, well, anyways, but she was worried.

Karina Yeah.

Niles: She went to NYU and I had lunch with her. I said relax, you know, so.

Karina Yeah, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really interesting hearing about your theory and just... I guess your theory on college too. But thank you so much for your time.

Niles: You’re welcome, a lot of fun. Good luck.

Karina Thank you.

Niles: And relax.

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