As an undergraduate at Rice University, I majored in Biology, with special interests in psychology and computing.
My introduction to Rice was through Joseph I. Davies. I was a visiting high-school student when he engaged me in an unforgettable conversation about the need for world government. As a biology major, I did not take his fabled Biology 100 course, which was designed for non-majors, but I did sit in on some of his lectures, including the opening one in which he threw live frogs into the auditorium seats. Amidst all the screams, he would ask “What is life? What makes us know that these objects are living things?” His final lecture of the year, and of his life, was on the meaning of evolution.
I was severely challenged by the task of choosing one subject to major in. I can’t say that there was any topic that I could flatly reject, and I didn’t have a lifelong passion for any one. I chose biology for two reasons after the influence of Davies. The first was that biology tasted of both the human sciences and the physical, empiricism and rationalism, practical and ethereal, material and abstract. I wanted something that could cover it all, while pretending to be one discipline.
The second reason was that I loved plants, animals, and the ecologies they inhabited, or should I say, created. See for example, Richard Lewontin’s The Triple Helix or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. But my timing was off. 19th century biology had been very much natural history. It was transdisciplinary and conceived humans as part of nature. But that era had largely passed at Rice. For example, the botany course was available for football players, not biology majors. By my day the subject focused on molecular biology and biochemistry.
The “central dogma of molecular biology,” which laid out the relationship between DNA, RNA, and proteins, had been promulgated just a few years earlier. In recent decades, there has been a return to considering “plants, animals, and their ecologies,” with the renewed interest in ecosystems, biodiversity, and climate change. Both organismal and molecular biology are now thriving.
I was both too early and too late for my central interests in biology. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the opportunity I had at Rice and for the way it opened doors to what I now find fascinating.
I also enrolled in the Humanities 100 course taught by Radoslav Tsanoff. That course, along with others, opened new doors for my understanding of philosophy, which up until then I had been self-studying.