Undergrads take deep dive with whales

It’s one thing to debate Darwin’s evolutionary theory in the classroom. It’s quite another to do so after vivid encounters with the natural world: mucking through a salt marsh to scoop up microbes; observing a dolphin dissection and seeing how strikingly human it looks inside; gazing into the eyes of a whale that seems eerily aware.

That may be why the 10 UChicago students who just completed a new quarter-long program, “The Whale: Biology, Culture, and Evolution on Nantucket Sound,” comprised “one of the best classes I’ve had at the undergraduate level,” says Robert Richards, the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor in the History of Science and Medicine. “These kids were all extremely sharp. We argued to the end, in kindly and good fashion. They wanted to challenge everything! They were the kind of students you think of as ideal at the University.”

Richards has taught Darwinism at UChicago for many years, but last fall it was in the context of the new “Whale Program” held at the University-affiliated Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. For three weeks prior to Richards’ course, the students, all non-biology majors, took an intensive laboratory course on “Experimental Biology by the Sea,” led by Karl Matlin, professor of surgery, and Chris Schonbaum, senior lecturer in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division.

“We introduced them to research on not only whales, but also fish and crabs, sea urchins, frogs, and microbes,” Matlin says. “The whale was a foil for this course in many ways,” he says, one being exposure to marine research experiments at the MBL and in Woods Hole. “We hoped that, by the time they got to Darwin, they would have a better sense of biodiversity and the natural environment, and how evolution might work.”

Kicking off this new study-abroad style program was a course on “Whales, Whaling, and American History,” taught by Michael Rossi, assistant professor of the history of medicine. “How to Observe Alien Animals,” taught by UChicago graduate student Lily Huang, rounded out the quarter in Woods Hole.
A sense of place

Woods Hole whalers took part in the golden era of American whaling in the early 19th century, spearheaded by enormously profitable operations based in Nantucket and New Bedford, Mass. American whalers were especially good at hunting sperm whales and extracting the valuable spermaceti from the head, a waxy substance that was refined for luxury items such as high-quality candles, lamp oil, and perfumes. MBL’s Candle House building was originally a spermaceti candle factory.

Rossi’s course immersed the students in the intellectual, social, and cultural history of American whaling through readings, discussions, and excursions beyond Woods Hole.

“It’s one thing to read about a harpoon and another thing to see this 12-foot-long piece of wood and iron,” Rossi says of their trip to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. They spent a day exploring Nantucket Island, where they met with Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, recently released as a movie. And they observed whales in the wild during a boat trip out of Provincetown, Mass.

“It’s really neat to study in a place where we learn about what is right around us,” says Greg Ross, a second-year student in the Whale Program.

“Just because it happened in the past doesn’t mean it’s forgotten in Woods Hole,” adds Kelly Peyton, a fourth-year anthropology major. “The alignment of it all was awesome.”

As they moved forward in history, they considered shifting social attitudes toward whales. “We went from thinking of whales as an exploitable natural resource that is more or less insensible and perhaps even malevolent, to an animal that perhaps is a model for other types of mammalian cognition, such as humans,” Rossi says. “How would you know? What happens when you project intelligence onto another creature?”

And they read Moby Dick, which Rossi calls “a deeply weird, strange book. You can read it almost without a plot. It’s all about the risks of confronting the vastness of the unknown—and the rewards.”
The power of observation

Observation was a common theme running through the Whale Program’s courses, Matlin says. Huang’s course, for example, began with the question, “What would be a better strategy for studying the lives of other animals: To assume that their experience is basically assimilable to ours, or utterly alien?” “The course was brimming from the start. There was a lot to say,” Huang says.

“In the lab, observation is critical,” Matlin says of his experimental biology course. The students carried out several classical experiments in sea-urchin embryology, some originally conducted at the MBL, and learned about MBL’s formative role in this field through a lecture by historian Jane Maienschein of Arizona State University. They then moved into a microbial ecology unit, led by MBL scientists Linda Amaral-Zettler and Julie Huber.

“We stomped around the marsh measuring salinity, temperature, oxygen, and taking sediment samples,” Huber says. “By the end of the week, the students had looked at the samples under the microscope, extracted microbial DNA, amplified genes from the DNA, and sequenced the DNA.”

The students then spent several days at another research organization, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where they studied cetacean anatomy, physiology, coastal strandings, and whale communication.

Their varied observations in embryology and animal physiology later proved valuable in Richards’ course. “They had much more evidence, and more kinds of experience to prepare them to talk reasonably about Darwin’s theory,” Richards says.

And Darwin, of course, “was a great observer,” Richards says. “A good deal of his argument for evolution by natural selection depended on his observations in biogeography, embryology, artificial selection, the patterns and variety of species and genera in the natural world.

“While each one may not be completely convincing, all together they produced, as Darwin said, ‘one long argument’ for his view.”

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