That biologists are often obsessed with their work is no revelation. I think that a mild fixation on scientific questions is almost a prerequisite in this field given the level of persistence required for success. But when a group of scientists start to show an obsession with a literary narrative, things get interesting.
It seems to me that biologists are just a bit obsessed with Alice, and they can’t stop talking about her. I wonder why it is that when biologists start to step outside of their narrow conversations on science, they often turn to her. There are plenty of examples of this, and I just picked up Carol Yoon’s Naming Nature, and there, atop the first chapter, is Alice conversing with a gnat. Don’t get me wrong – I like Alice – she is quirky, funny, entertaining, and has been involved in a lot of crazy situations. But why do biologists seem to heap so much attention on her, and leave other characters out in the cold? I mean, where in the science literature is Little Dorrit? Dmitri Karamazov? The Laughing Man?
Lewis Carroll’s books Through the Looking-Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, collectively known as the “Alice stories,” have a range of biologically-inspired characters that seem to speak to us and provide literary icons from which we can leap into discussions of peculiar natural phenomena. It’s not that biologists don’t ever borrow from other literature – Stephen J. Gould’s use of Dr. Pangloss from Candide is one of the most notable – but the Alice stories seem to more regularly resonate with us.
One reason we love Alice and her stories is that the characters do funny things, biological organisms do funny things, and sometimes both these characters and real organisms are funny in the same way. Leigh Van Valen’s use of the Red Queen is probably the most prominent example. In Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen has the unusual problem of needing to keep running to stay in the same place. When Van Valen explained how organisms evolve in so-called “arms races” (sexually reproducing organisms and parasites being a prominent example) he saw the parallel. This was clearly apt, and the hypothesis is now much better known than many others in biology, likely because of the memorable reference to the Red Queen.
Another reason that these stories appeal to biologists is that they are stocked with an unusual set of plants, animals, and fungi. How couldn’t a fictionalized Dodo with hands, a fish-footman in regimental attire, or daisy flowers with human faces inspire the off-the-clock curiosity of any scientist? The downtrodden walrus in a suit coat, vest, and dress shoes is one of my favorites.
I also think the Alice stories tap into the enjoyment that scientists derive from pointing out errors. My favorite example of this is a paper called “Sheep refraction, correction and vision in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871)” (Ophthal. Physiol Opt.17: 88-89). In this paper, the authors describe the optical folly of a sheep reading a book using a pair of spectacles. Their basic conclusion is that glasses wouldn’t help the sheep see. Although they leave the problem of sheep using language and tools for others to debunk, it is likely the most esoteric example of this “Alice phenomenon.”
Given the effectiveness of a lead with both quirky novelty and literary connections, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that we draw on Alice more than other characters. As I head back to my massive stack of unread biological books and papers, I’m looking forward to my next trip down the rabbit hole.