Can molecular evolution help bridge the gap between professional scientists and everyone else? At first this might sound ridiculous, since molecular evolution is a highly technical scientific field, requiring intimate knowledge of biochemistry, statistics, and a great deal of theory. When I try to discuss my research with non-scientists, I struggle to explain basic concepts like the neutral theory, cladistics, or correcting for multiple substitutions. On the other hand, every scientific field is hard to understand, but curious amateurs frequently tackle complex ideas even without formal education. Because of the vast amount of bioinformatic data freely available on the web, it’s possible to do cutting-edge research in molecular evolution at essentially no cost, if you know what you’re doing. Promoting molecular evolution as a geeky hobby could be good for both scientific progress and public awareness of it.
As I have explained elsewhere, every DNA sequence used in a peer-reviewed publication is deposited in an online database, GenBank. Using a variety of free software, you can analyze these sequences and see how they’re related to each other, what kinds of evolutionary forces have caused them to diverge, and what sorts of functions uncharacterized genes are likely to have. For the most part, this hasn’t already been done; a gene is usually sequenced for a particular reason, and all the other interesting questions you could ask about that sequence are ignored. Who knows what truths might be quietly sitting on the web, waiting to be discovered by someone who puts the pieces together?
Skeptics might groan that sitting at a computer analyzing molecular data sounds far too boring for anyone but the academic elite to ever attempt it. Sure, lots of people are interested in science, argue the skeptics, but they dream about its more romantic, exciting aspects: trekking through the rainforest searching for a cure for cancer, traveling to outer space, tracking a herd of wildebeest by helicopter, creating and testing new explosives, and so on. Most science-based pastimes try to mimic those thrills with hands-on, outdoor activities: model rockets, butterfly collections, chemistry sets, and so on. But… humans display incredible variety in their passions. Many people already spend hours of their free time in front of a monitor, just surfing the web or playing video games. When I was a teenager, if I had had access to a fast computer, millions of DNA sequences, the right analysis software, and a good academic library, I might have spent days playing around with the data. Granted, I was much nerdier than most teenagers, but other folks like me are out there. And it would have two advantages over most science-based hobbies. First, it costs essentially nothing if you already have a computer with an internet connection anyway, and second, if you know what you’re doing you have a good chance of generating publishable results for a real peer-reviewed scientific journal. Not everyone will know what they’re doing, of course, but the possibility of figuring out something really novel is a good motivator, and anyone who tried would certainly learn a lot, even without getting a paper out of the experience.
Fields like astronomy and paleontology have benefited from the contributions of amateurs for years. The more non-professionals we have doing science, the better, because not only does more science get accomplished, but laypersons don’t feel so distanced from the world of academic researchers with all the letters after their names and their government grants. It’s clear that public understanding of science, especially evolutionary biology, is much poorer than it ought to be. Even mistrust and fear of scientists is disturbingly widespread. So next time, instead of World of Warcraft, consider exploring the NCBI site. Show your fundamentalist relatives a phylogeny you’ve reconstructed with neutral sequence data, and ask them to explain why it matches a morphology-based tree. High school teachers should think about giving that bright student an independent project looking for the signature of positive selection on genes, instead of the rote science assignment the rest of the class is working on. I know this isn’t for everybody. But I think there are a few folks out there who would be interested if they only knew about it.