I enjoy doing the population and community ecology I do, and I think there are good reasons to research those subjects. I have no regrets about having gone into population and community ecology. But knowing what I know now, if I had to start over again and pick a different research area, I’d pick evolutionary biomechanics.
I hadn’t known much about evolutionary biomechanics until I sat on a faculty search committee in that area. Sitting on a search committee is a great way to get up to speed on a research area. So now I’m an evolutionary biomechanics fanboy. From my outsider’s vantage point, evolutionary biomechanics has everything I like about my own field, and more.
- Diverse examples of general principles. All organisms obey the laws of physics. They all evolve via evolution by natural selection. And many of them have to solve the same basic biomechanical problems in order to survive and reproduce, like “how to move efficiently through a fluid”. But yet the evolved solutions to those problems can vary quite a bit from one species to the next. So you have lots of interesting variation, but it all fits within a framework of general principles. Clear-cut patterns in the variation often emerge once you understand the relevant general principles.
- Math plus biology. Perhaps in part because of its close connections to physics and engineering, many problems in evolutionary biomechanics are amenable to mathematical modeling. Indeed, they aren’t just amenable to mathematical modeling, they demand mathematical modeling. Without mathematical modeling, you often wouldn’t know what biomechanical questions to ask in the first place, much less be able to answer them. Good luck verbally intuiting your way to, say, an explanation of how hummingbirds hover. The amenability of biomechanical problems to mathematical modeling helps to make them tractable.
- “How” plus “why” questions. One of the most basic divisions in biological research is between people and subfields focused on “how” questions, and people and subfields focused on “why” questions. In evolutionary biomechanics, you get to ask both kinds of questions, and the best work links them together. The “how” questions are engineering-type questions about, well, how the organism does whatever it does. The “why” questions are evolutionary questions, for instance about the fitness costs and benefits to the organism of moving as it does , rather than in some other way.
- Good null models. By a “null” model, I mean a model that omits some bit of the real world, but that describes the rest of the world approximately correctly. We can compare the behavior of the real world to the behavior of the null model to learn about the effects of the omitted bit, if any. The trouble with a lot of null models in ecology is that they often don’t really omit whatever it is they purport to omit, and don’t describe the other bits of the world with sufficient accuracy. Whereas null models in evolutionary biomechanics seem work pretty well, at least as best I can tell. For instance, it seems to be common for investigators to calculate quite precisely how fast some organism could move some body part via muscle contraction alone. If the organism turns out to move its body part faster than that, that’s strong evidence that it’s not just relying on muscle contraction. Instead, it must have some method of “power amplification”–some way to store energy in a spring for subsequent rapid release (see Longo et al. 2019 for review).
- Holy s**t. A lot of evolutionary biomechanics involves working out the hows and whys of biomechanical extremes–organisms pushing the limits of what’s possible. Which means that, as an evolutionary biomechanicist, it’s your job to watch organisms doing things that make you go “Holy s**t!” I don’t know about you, but I could use more “holy s**t!” moments in my life. 🙂
I mean, I know this is familiar to all of you, but it will never not be amazing:
Just look at this:
Are you kidding me?!:
I had to pay good money for a sonicator; they come standard on pistol shrimp:
Ok, come on, this can’t even be real, this is the real life Matrix:
Now it’s your turn: if you had to start over again and pick some other topic or field besides the one you currently work on, what would it be?
Related old post:
The road not taken–for me, and for ecology. One of my better efforts, I think.