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CBS Welcomes New Post-Doc

November 7, 2017

Abraham Gibson is a new post-doctoral scholar with the Center for Biology and Society! Below is a short story about his intellectual upbringing.

I am currently an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University. Before I tell you about my research, however, it might prove helpful if I first step back and tell you how I got here. I was born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, where the clear night skies helped foster an early love for astronomy. The comets Shoemaker-Levy (1994) and Hale-Bopp (1995) passed through the solar system when I was still young and impressionable, and, in short order, I bought a telescope and adopted Carl Sagan as my intellectual hero. As an undergrad at James Madison University, I founded the Astronomy Club and served as its charter president. In fact, I was a senior at JMU when I chanced to watch a television show (of all things) that changed the course of my life.

In the spring of 2005, Bill Nye the Science Guy hosted a special on the Science Channel counting down the hundred greatest scientific discoveries of all time. I dutifully tuned in expecting the show to crown Einstein’s general theory of relativity the number-one discovery, and was stunned when Darwin’s theory of natural selection instead topped the list. (You can watch the segment at this link.) I had never previously given any thought to evolution, but I have thought of little else since. I was especially enchanted by the principle of common descent, which holds that all living things on earth are related, that we are all literally blood kin. I found this idea incredibly powerful and I still do, and I resolved to spend the rest of my life exploring evolution and its many implications. I enrolled in the graduate History program at Virginia Tech, where my thesis looked at reactions to the “tree of life” in American classrooms and courtrooms. I later enrolled in the History program at Florida State University, where my dissertation examined the evolutionary consequences of animal domestication. My work was later published as a monograph, Feral Animals in the American South: An Evolutionary History, by Cambridge University Press in 2016. I’ve also published articles/chapters on several different aspects of biology and society, including the intellectual pedigree of America’s most famous living biologist, the fraught development of sociobiology, the conceptual foundations of multilevel selection theory, the evolutionary impact of mining booms (and busts) in the nineteenth-century American West, the cultural legacy of so-called “invasive” species in the twentieth-century American South, and the complex relationship between evolution and ethics.  

As an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Biology and Society, I am busy writing my second book, which examines the biological sciences during the 1920s and 1930s. Alongside Jane Maienschein and Manfred Laubichler, I am working to identify scientific networks across different continents, different branches of biology, and several different “levels” of biological organization (hence the picture of Russian dolls). The scientists I’m studying had just lived through what was, at that time, the deadliest war in the history of the species, and they were keen not to do it again. This inclination necessarily influenced science. Around the world, biologists in a variety of different fields began studying the evolutionary origins of cooperation with increased urgency. They may have studied ants, plants, or amoeba, but their science invariably raised questions with serious implications for human societies. Namely, what is the source of the social impulse and how can we nurture it? What are the mechanisms that maintain harmony in diverse societies? Can we exist as a global people or must we insist on dividing into warring nation-states? These questions are more relevant than ever, and I hope my research encourages others to rethink traditional assumptions about the history of biology, the nature of cooperation, and the state of world affairs.

More information: Abe Gibson (abraham.gibson@asu.edu)

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