13 October 2014

Tolkien made me an evolutionary biologist

I've been an evolutionary biologist for over two decades now and I have been reflecting recently on how I came to join this profession. I started re-reading Stephen Jay Gould's Ever since Darwin, Goulds first collection, and have to acknowledge that Gould's amazing essays played a role as an undergraduate. Darwin's On the origin of species was also influential around the same time. Dawkin's The Selfish Gene was one of the first science books I read, so that has to be part of it. But, really, I have to go back further as I arrived at university with the passion for zoology and evolution already forming. In fact I can go back to when I was about 9 years old and read The Hobbit, followed by The Lord of the Rings a couple of years later. That's where it started.

Tolkien and evolution. These are not things that normally go together. Tolkien has often been portrayed as a romantic, always looking at the good old days, anti-technology and progress (especially by sf author David Brin). And this is hard to argue against. However, and perhaps ironically, there are many themes in Tolkien that help to prepare one for a life in evolution.

Min: The journey is important.
Summarising The Lord of the Rings as "short tourist loses valuable heirloom at volcanic destination" loses the whole sense of the journey, which is actually what the story is about. All the characters change (or evolve) significantly during the story. Evolution is about the journey, exposing the history of lineages. Ecology is about the destination, looking at the interactions that are here now. Tolkien helped my young mind to understand that everything has a history and that this journey is important.

Tad: Lineages are important.
Tolkien loves his genealogies. Frequently in his writings we are told who is related to who. It matters that Elrond has links to certain elven and human lineages. There are lineages in his appendices. This was a revelation to a young me. Relationships are important. Closely related characters respond in different ways to distantly related characters. Tolkien helped my young mind to understand that everything has a history and that lineages are important.

Neledh: Spatial scale is important.
Tolkien loved maps. One of the cool things to a nine year old was the map in the front of The Hobbit (as well as the runes!). Even in an imaginary world it matters where things are. It matters that the Lonely Mountain is on the Long Lake or that the Misty Mountains need to be crossed to get to Mirkwood. It matters that Farmer Maggot's farm is next to the Buckleberry Ferry. Tolkien helped my young mind to understand that where things are located spatially is relevant to explaining the journey.

Canad: Species distributions are important (as is how they came about).
Part of Tolkien's fascination with maps is that he uses them to explain where races are located. You learn about the distribution of dwarves, hobbits, elves and so on. You also learn about how these distributions have changed over time. Tolkien had detailed notes on the dispersal of races. For example, the hobbits had colonised The Shire relatively late in the piece, dispersing from Bree and prior to that from the shores of the great river Anduin across the Misty Mountains. Tolkien helped my young mind to understand that species move around, that what you see today has not always been the case, and that dispersal is a powerful force.

Leben: Landscapes are not permenant.
Tolkien presented different eras. The Lord of the Rings is set at the end of the third age which had been going for 3000 years. Two long ages preceded this one, giving a perception of deep time. Moreover, even the continental landscapes had changed during this period. Large parts of western Middle-Earth had submerged beneath the seas, cataclysmic battles had raised mountain ranges. Tolkien helped my young mind to understand that there is no long term permanence in geological features.

Eneg: Diversity is important.
Tolkien valued diversity. It is no accident that the fellowship is successful because it is made up of different races, each with skills that help achieve the final goal. Or that it is the hobbit joining the dwarven company that makes the difference. Tolkien also invented languages (I have used elven numbering here!) to emphasise this diversity. Tolkien helped my young mind to understand that diversity creates useful outcomes.

Tolkien was an author that pushed the importance of lineages, history, spatial scale, species distributions and dispersal, landscape impermanence and diversity through all of his stories. If this is not the ideal preparation for a young evolutionary biologist (especially one who specialises in biogeography) then I'm not sure what is!

Namárië !



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