Stomach-Churning Rating: 8/10 don’t look at the gooooaaaaaaaaaaaat!!!! Too late.
Morphology in biology, to me, is about the science of the relationship of anatomical form to function (including biomechanics), evolution, development and other areas of organismal biology. It thus encompasses the more descriptive, form-focused area of anatomy. But in common parlance I use the two terms interchangeably, because many scientists and the general public do know what anatomy is but get confused by the word “morphology”. Not wishing to wage a semantic skirmish or get into what linguistic or other morphology is, I shall move on. But as the title betrays, this post is about morphology and how we should be proud of it as scientists who study it. This is a companion post to my earlier post on Anatomy, which was aimed at a more general audience than at my colleagues. Yet general audience, stick around. You might find this interesting.
I’m a morphologist at heart. What interests me most about organisms is how their form is not only beautiful and amazing itself but tells us profound things about other aspects of biology, as I stated in the first sentence above. I tend to call myself an evolutionary biomechanist, but morphology is in there too, at the heart of what I do, and biomechanical evolutionary morphologist — while more accurate — just does not roll off the lingual apparatus. I’ll dodge that semantic minefield of branding issues now. I’ll instead move on to my more important point that many (but not all) morphologists go through a phase in their career in which they have some strong feelings of being looked down on by other biologists/scientists as doing outmoded or inferior science. I explained in my Anatomy post that this “inferiority” is not the case today, moreso than ever; that the field is in a dynamic renaissance; so if you want some talking points go there. Regardless, these feelings of being almost stigmatized can exacerbate Imposter Syndrome, especially early in a scientific career.
I can think of one such case of bad feelings in my not-too-distant memory: at a conference dinner, one colleague sitting to my right said to my colleague to my left “What do you think about anatomy? Should students even do any research on it?” and went on with a bit of diatribe about the why-bother-ness of anatomy relative to other areas such as biomechanics. They both knew of my interests in this area, I’m quite sure, so it was as if I was not there sitting in between them. I was so appalled I was stunned into silence, but seething, and the colleague to my left didn’t defend the field either, even though they did a fair amount of research in it. It took a long time for me to cool down, and I still feel a bit offended and shocked that my colleague would say something so awkward and obliquely confrontational. Similar situations occurred during my PhD work at Berkeley, where biomechanics was having a heyday and anatomy was just beginning to rise from the ashes. It’s odd to me when biomechanists devalue morphology, because so much of mechanics depends on and relates to it, but to each their own. In many biological fields there are reductionist schisms that think they can divorce organisms from other aspects of their biology without losing something, so I’m not surprised, but maybe I am falling into my own trap of condescension here…
Anyway, I had those feelings of being on the receiving end of collegial condescension for a long time myself, and maybe that’s part of why I settled on calling my speciality something other than morphology. Shame on me, and double shame for getting back to that branding issue. But maybe not– maybe it IS important to talk about branding. I’ve been thinking a lot about my career and morphology in recent years, and keep returning to the thought that I need to embrace morphology in an even tighter love-hug. This blog has long been intended as a step in that direction (my Pinterest “Mucho Morphology” page is another step), but I could do more. Speaking of morphologists generally, perhaps we all could. Morphology still has some PR issues, most of us would probably agree, despite its arguable renaissance.
Thus my point of this post is simple: let’s try using the words morphology or anatomy more often in our scientific communications. Put those words out there and say them with pride. Let’s keep name-dropping morphology everywhere we can, within reason, and defending its value if challenged. To do this, we’ll need to know how we individually feel about morphology, and ensure we’re well informed to defend it. So think about those things, too, if you join this cause. By waging a PR battle against the forces of anti-morphology condescension, be they waxing or waning, we can get others to give our field its due credit. Fly that flayed banner of morphology high.
See a cool picture of an animal and want to post it on social media? Emphasize that it doesn’t just look cool but has amazing anatomy. Publish a cool new paper showing how a novel adaptation evolved? Remind readers of the morphological (or at least phenotypic) basis of that adaptation and how it interacts with the environment. Summarizing your research interests and discipline to a colleague or on a website/CV? Put morphology in there. Stand up straight when you do, too. Morphology, morphology, morphology. Learn to love that word and it will serve us all well. Branding and PR are only part of the struggle that needs to happen, but much as they may be to our distaste they can help. Doing great morphology-based science is the most important thing, but as social human beings the PR issue cannot be ignored.
This was a shortish post for me but it’s something I feel strongly about. My feelings have been magnified by taking on the role of Chair-Elect of the Division of Vertebrate Morphology at SICB, assisting the awesome current Chair Dr. Callum Ross and wise past-Chair Alice Gibb in addition the the rest of the committee and division, and as an Executive Committee member in the International Society of Vertebrate Morphology. I now have some extra responsibility to do something. Complaining about the state of affairs doesn’t help much– doing something can. If you’re a vertebrate morphologist, you should join these professional societies/divisions, attend their superb meetings and join their increasing presence on social media like Facebook (and soon Twitter?). Speak up and join in, please, these societies exist to help you and morphology!
Did you notice I didn’t use the title of the post as a lead-in to altered lyrics from a certain hit U2 song? Well I did. Maybe you’ll appreciate me resisting the temptation here. My Xmas song about our three new morphology papers didn’t exactly evoke angelic choruses.
What do you think, morphologists and non-morphologists? I am sure there are analogous situations in other fields. I’m curious how other morphologists or fields deal with or have struggled with this kind of image problem before. Especially under situations where the science itself is vigorous and rigorous, but the perception may be otherwise.