Why blurry vision helps with big ideas

My friend Cin-Ty Lee has always claimed that poor vision has helped make him the exceptional birder that he is. He claims that because he cannot pick out every detail instantly he has to look at the whole bird in its environment, and that this is actually a more effective way of identifying birds than seeing every detail. He knows that the tiny warbler worrying away at a clump of Spanish moss is likely to be a worm-eating or maybe a black-and-white warbler, and never a tree-top blackburnian, or a ground-skulking hooded warbler. Of course, these examples are obvious even to a fairly novice spring-time birder, but carried to extreme, the behaviors and locations of birds go a long way towards identifying every single one (ok, not all the way – you do have to see or hear them also).

But how might blurry vision help scientists with goals much greater than identifying that bird in the Spanish moss? Jay Odenbaugh told us at an excellent seminar in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine series at Wash U last Wednesday. Jay’s talk (or paper, as the philosophers call them) was entitled “Searching for Patterns, Hunting for Causes: Robert MacArthur, the Mathematical Naturalist.” MacArthur is the legendary ecologist who died in 1972 of renal cancer at the height of his career, catapulting him instantly to god-like status. MacArthur worked on warblers, on the competitive exclusion principle, and with Ed Wilson invented perhaps the first null model in ecology, island biogeography, though he didn’t call it a null model. In this talk, Jay said that MacArthur claimed the best ecologists had blurry vision so they could see the big patterns without being overly distracted by the contradictory details.

This immediately made a huge amount of sense to me. Biology is so full of special cases, of details that don’t fit theories, that it is easy to despair of advancing with broad, general theories. But we need those theories, for they tell us where to look next, what data to collect, and even what theory to challenge. I am a details person, but love the big theories. When Dave proposed that we graph organisms on two axes according to how cooperative or competitive they are I felt very uncomfortable. What are the units to the axes? How can we put a whale and a Dictyostelium slug in the same graph, and then add in lichen and an angler fish and its mate? And that is just the organism side. A lion eating a gazelle fits on the same graph, just on the negative side? It made me uncomfortable, until I embraced it. For these organismality graphs, which we have published in a couple of places, help define organisms in a simple and elegant way. I hope they will point research towards the interesting organisms towards the borders of organismality. It is our big idea and it took very blurry glasses.

Maybe blurry vision is one of the things we contribute to our own lab group. We can help pull the students out of the details of their project to the big picture, showing them when a project is finished, or when another direction needs to be taken. This blurry vision comes naturally to us, since we are not the ones pouring the plates, staining the cells, counting the spores. There is probably always a tension between detail and one more replicate, versus wrapping it up and moving ahead. It is probably always harder to stop doing what you are doing and writing it up, than doing another replicate, another field season. So, students and postdocs, thank us for our blurry vision, and we’ll try to turn it on you frequently and help.

I took away a few other lessons from Jay’s excellent talk. One is that I always learn from philosophers. I’m so happy to have philosophy and history of biology as part of our faculty and curriculum, with Gar Allen in our biology department. Philosophers do not think like we do, and we ignore them to our peril. Want to have big ideas? Pay attention to the back stories behind the big ideas already out there.

An interesting thing about philosophy talks is that they are full of long quotes, fortunately, these days, in powerpoint, not just read. It seems strange, but to philosophers getting the language exactly right is important. In some ways seeing the actual words can bring you back. But the style is certainly a surprise. I’m glad they seem to have come away from reading the talks, for only a trained dramatic reader can read in a way to hold my fickle attention.

There were also a couple of other interesting points that Jay brought out about MacArthur, one scientific, one social. MacArthur did a lot of theoretical work, but he was also a field ecologist who looked at how five warbler species divided up their habitat. The species were yellow-rumped, black-throated green, Cape May, bay-breasted, and blackburnian warblers. He found some patterns in their feeding habits that supported the competitive exclusion idea for species co-existence. It reminded me of the narrowness of looking at only the most easily visible. Maybe not for this example, but for many, interactions with microbes are critical for finding the big patterns. How slow plant ecologists have been to come to this view, as Nancy Collins Johnson explained to us. Fungal partners in nutrient acquisition should not be ignored. Even behavior can be influenced by parasites, making them more or less shy, according to the needs of their parasites. Another unseen thing might be what the birds do in other habitats. How do their tropical roots constrain what they do on their breeding grounds?

The final lesson I took away from Jay’s talk was the exclusive clubbiness of science. Robert MacArthur met with his buddies Ed Wilson, and Marxists, Dick Lewontin, and Dick Levins, at the MacArthur summer cottage at Marlboro. I suppose women were there, cooking and cleaning for these guys, but they weren’t mentioned, certainly not as scientists. Those of us who live and breathe scientific excitement are inevitably going to talk about cool ideas at private locations. But it is so important, whenever possible, to make scientific excitement public. That is why I’m so happy about the flowering of public science, from blogs to TED talks, to Science Cafes. Let’s keep talking and share our newest ideas.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in New ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Why blurry vision helps with big ideas

  1. Pingback: Sometimes it’s important to ignore the details [Things you should read] « Jabberwocky Ecology | Weecology's Blog

  2. Pingback: On seeing the big picture « Oikos Blog

  3. Owen says:

    So blurry vision helps you focus on the details that are most important, and avoid being distracted by all the beautiful colors.

    If bird watching were a science, Cin-Ty would be the most efficient data collector. Could he convince others to employ his techniques? Maybe just arguing that his data collection method is superior would not be enough. He might also have to convince others that he sees things they do not. His perspective stems from blurry vision, but does it lead to a sharp focus on interesting things that others miss?

    After all, the point of science is not just to collect data, but to understand it. A successful new vision is one that broadens perspectives, and turns otherwise distracting details into theory-supporting facts. What an ordinary birder sees as an irrelevant detail of behavior, Cin-Ty sees as the crucial fact of species classification.

    Employing a new perspective can be aided if we blur our vision to the old. However, often we need not abandon the old perspective. We can learn from Cin-Ty without tossing our $2000 Swarovskis.

  4. Pingback: Over at Sociobi… « Enquist Laboratory news blog

  5. Amy Hurford says:

    Great post, I would have loved to have seen that talk by Jay Odenbaugh. I started a blog on a topic similar to this. My blog is about the art of choosing the right level of complexity for a given question, i.e., in the context of your post, how blurry is blurry enough? I think blurry vision is a nice way of referring to the parsimony issue. To me, blurry suggests a smooth, continuous approximation of something that might appear staccato and without a pattern when viewed too closely. It seems like a nice choice of words because approximation is certainly a key aspect of good model building. I think I’ve also heard in the past that McArthur was a fairly good naturalist – or at least that he would make observations that other people might miss. Blurry vision and being unobservant are different things and so I thought it might be worth pointing out that blurry vision is a different way of seeing, but you still have to look!

  6. Mohammed says:

    Great post.. I am an engineer by profession and many a times, I have also experienced the same thing. Every time its hard to theorize something with detailed focus on every aspect. Although engineering is a well aspect field. Every phenomenon is theorized with mathematical details. However, when it comes to a new phenomena or new idea we also need those ‘blurry glasses’.

  7. Amy Hurford says:

    Interesting that the Wikipedia biographies of both R. A. Fisher and John Maynard Smith mention their poor eyesight. In Fisher’s case it gave him great insight into conjecturing solutions to mathematical problems.

  8. Interesting. David Queller also had very poor vision until he had lasik a few years ago. He still seems super smart and productive. 🙂

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