By Kathleen Ackert, Siena College
“I think.” These two words were humbly written in Charles Darwin’s field journal, just above what we now call the first phylogenetic tree. Charles Darwin made a set of observations about birds when he first arrived in the Galápagos Islands that still hold true today. The statement “I think” conveys a sense of uncertainty. “Is this what is really happening?” There was a chance that Darwin was wrong. As a biology major at Siena College, I say this all the time. “I think the answer to the first question on the Organic Chemistry test was KMNO4, not MCPBA. I think that the cellular process of respiration is structured this way.” Sometimes I’m right, and other times I’m wrong. However, Darwin’s hypothesis was incredibly astute, and his simple phylogenetic tree concerning the birds that are known today as Darwin’s finches is the basis for a much greater idea: evolution.
In his observations, Darwin asked, “How are all of these birds related to one another?” Unfortunately in 1835, he could not ask Siri. Instead, he had to hypothesize. What similarities do these birds have? Why have their beaks changed shape? What ecological niche are they filling by having a different beak shape? Because of thinkers like Darwin, we now have access to powerful genetic search engines, such as GenBank, allowing virtually anyone to acquire anything from partial Cytochrome B sequences to complete genomes from almost any species around the world.
I, a budding biologist, had the opportunity to travel to the Galápagos Islands for a semester to study marine biology and phylogenetics. Each morning, my classmates and I would rise with the sun and go birding. We would record locations and the feeding habits of Darwin’s finches. Afterwards, we attended lecture and lab where we spent hours upon hours running various genetic analysis programs to create our very own phylogenetic trees of different organisms.
Every day, I would think. And think. Biology, philosophy, ethics, and more. This led me to think about how the scientific process came about and why its structure has passed the test of time. Part of the standard curriculum in elementary school is to learn the steps of the scientific method: the way we ask and answer scientific questions. I hope I’m making my elementary school science teacher proud when I recite what I remember from memory. Ask a question, construct a hypothesis, design an experiment, make observations, and draw a conclusion. The series of steps become more sophisticated as one furthers his or her scientific education. However, the basic idea remains the same: ask a question.
I was once told by a very wise professor to question everything. Why does the sun rise? What enables life to exist? Or my favorite…What is the meaning of life? That question earned my professor a snide response, consisting first of the definition of the word “life” from the dictionary, followed by an explanation of why humans search to discover meaning in every life event− no matter how tiny.
Critical thinking allows us to find the right answers. It allows us to learn from being wrong. Being wrong can be incredibly frustrating. I have met countless other research students who have spent their entire undergraduate careers repeatedly finding out what doesn’t work. The wrong reagent in the synthesis reaction. The wrong way to capture squirrels. The wrong number in the 27-page formula they have been working on since the fall of their freshman year. To think, quite literally, is to form an opinion or to believe that something is true. Thoughts are not always correct. Daring to fail is a vital part of research, and critical thinking would not be possible without it. As scientists today, we require citations, statistical analysis, and robust evidence before we even consider that we have found the “right” answer. We need high confidence, or a high level of agreement. A p-value of less than or equal to 0.05. Failing isn’t fun, but there are lessons to be learned from it. Critical thinking enables us to learn from being wrong.
It is absolutely fundamental that as scientists, we ask questions. Everything we have knowledge of− even something as widely accepted as the principle of evolution− is subject to revision the more that we think. That is why today, nearly one hundred years later, we are still searching for ways to push the limits of human comprehension and science – by thinking.