Science Blog

He interprets the tree of life

CorrespondentNovember 11, 2012 

Robin Dunbar is a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University.

Jonathan Eisen is a professor in the departments of evolution and ecology and medical microbiology at the University of California at Davis. At The Tree of Life (, he blogs about discoveries and observations in phylogenomics, where the fields of evolution and genomics intersect. Follow him on Twitter as @phylogenomics. Questions and answers have been edited.

Q: How did you find your way into a career in science?

It’s kind of a convoluted path. My family has a lot of scientists in it, so I always had an interest in geeky, science things mostly related to natural history. I went to college and somehow got it into my head that I wanted to be an East Asian studies major. I took a course for non-science majors taught by Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist. Ten minutes into the class, I decided I wasn’t going to be an East Asian studies major and that this was what I really liked. So I switched to being a biology major and I’ve been doing it since then.

Q: You coined the term “phylogenomics.” How is this field contributing to our understanding of how life evolved?

As a bit of an aside, I don’t care about how life evolved. I mean, I do in some sense. But how life evolved is, in part, a historical artifact. What I’m interested in is using that knowledge to tell us about modern organisms and to help us predict the biology of things we have not yet studied and to help us interpret the biology of things we have studied.

Q: You’re a big proponent of open science. What does that mean? How is it beneficial?

Part of open science is about trying to make sure that as many people as needed have access to the underpinnings of science. A second part of open science is the unrestricted use of that information. Many policies are out there for certain types of data saying as soon as it’s available, anyone can do anything they want with it.

There are a lot of people arguing about this for music: Can you sample someone’s pop song and use it in some other arena? But that’s an area where people have a commercial interest. In science, that’s not the point. The point of science is progress and to make discoveries and to solve world problems. Restrictions inhibit our ability to progress.

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