Crox Minor (15), who has just gotten three GCSE examinations out of the way (all with A*s, I might add), and is embarking on a lot more this year, wants to be a surgeon. She has her heart set on the University of Cambridge which, she says, has one of the very few medical schools left in the UK that still does full-body dissection.
I was amazed by this. Isn’t full-body dissection considered an essential component of medical education these days? Apparently, though, Crox Minor has done her research – Cambridge is indeed one of the few places left where you can cut up real bodies. (If anyone knows any better, or any more, please let me know – clearly, as a Dad, I need to be up to speed on this.)
I learned biology the old-fashioned way – by racking up the body count. Although I was at a Rudolf Steiner school, which has as its philosophy a creed with many features that are variously charming, peculiar, or downright wrong, I was lucky to have had teachers who’d had a traditional Oxbridge zoological education – based on getting your hands dirty with real-live dead critters. And not just pallid lab-bred specimens, either.
My A-level biology teacher seems to have had an arrangement with the local fishmonger and butcher. I remember slicing open a wild-caught dogfish to see a morass of roundworms pouring out, as if the poor creature were little more than a sports holdall stuffed with wet spaghetti. Nothing else – no lecture, no photograph, no simulation, no video – could have enlivened me as much to the fact that most wild animals labour under a huge load of parasites. My teachers knew that nothing replaces real experience with real cadavers – the smell, the texture, the feel of them.
Sure, my teachers mightn’t have been too hot on all that new-fangled DNA malarkey, but they knew their trochlear from their trigeminal, notwithstanding inasmuch as which, their olfactory from their oculomotor, so that by the time I got to University I knew the basics of comparative anatomy. If one is going to study zoology (which was my aim), I felt that understanding how animals were put together was an absolute fundamental of the discipline.
I did my first degree at the University of Leeds, which, back in the early 1980s (I don’t know what it’s like now) expected their medics to participate in full-body dissections, and their zoologists to do much the same with a variety of interesting and exotic creatures. I still remember slicing a lamprey like a salami and drawing all the sections, and having to take a hacksaw to open up the thick, scaly body of a garfish (Lepidosteus).
All of which set me up nicely to do a very specimen-based Ph.D., and, in course of time, become resident Bone-Botherer at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N.
One of the more dramatic demonstrations by my school biology teacher involved his breathing into, and thereby inflating, a set of bloody, freshly excised pig lungs. Imagine my delight when, a couple of years ago, Crox Minor came home from school alight with the news that her teacher had done the selfsame demonstration – an episode which she now considers pivotal in her decision to pursue medicine.
So, when you respond to my contention that nothing replaces dissection, first hand, as a way of gathering knowledge of anatomy, that I am a know-nothing old fart, I can respond by saying that such demonstrations have continued to inspire at least one person to pursue a career in saving lives, even if they are a chip off the old block. Were I a patient desirous of surgery, I’d probably feel more confident if my surgeon had had long experience of real bodies, than had they learned their trade from plastic models or simulations.
I have a suspicion – perhaps even a worry – that biology as a whole has become more and more divorced from the weft, weave, and, I daresay, the woof of real creatures …
… such that those who call themselves biologists spend their days moving very small quantities of colorless liquid from one place to another and wouldn’t know the difference between an elephant and an entrenching tool. Nostalgia? I think not. Failure to understand the real world of biological diversity is a threat not just to education, but to the quality of our science – and, I deem, to medicine.
A little while ago I came across an article what I wrote on the tendency of biologists to concentrate work on ‘model’ organisms – THE mouse, THE fly, THE roundworm, and so on. In that article I suggested that such typology removes one weapon we have against creationism. If we get into a mindset that there is only one way to make a mouse (or a fly, or a worm) then it’s harder to combat the creationist argument from design. When you appreciate diversity, you can see that the natural world has a multiplicity of solutions to similar problems of existence, many of them kludged, the knowledge of each new example a threat to the idea of the Creator as someone with a tidy mind, a boost to the mindless profligacy of evolution.
Since then, however, the explosion in genomics and bioinformatics has to a degree sensitized laboratory researchers to diversity, and techniques now exist to harvest meaningful genetic results even from non-model organisms. Typology is, thankfully, in retreat.
But there is another problem. If the existence of diversity is evidence for evolution, there are those who manage to enter medical schools but object quite strongly to the teaching of evolution. The great thing about knowing one’s trigeminal from one’s trochlear, say, and comparing these between organisms, is to learn about the concept of homology, and how evolution has shaped organisms over geological time. One’s knowledge of anatomy, therefore, is enriched by the concept of evolution. A body – whether that of a human or a hamadryad, makes more sense as an integrated structure, shaped by evolution, than as a list of separate parts.
But I have been witness to private conversations between lecturers in anatomy, yea, even those at the best medical schools in the land, who have received letters of complaint from those who, for religious reasons, demand that evolution not be mentioned in their courses. They have come to cure the sick, they say, not learn such godless tripe.
It is hard to know what one should do were one a lecturer in that situation, given that many students from foreign lands whence such objections are commonplace bring £££ to a University, and that students these days are encouraged to be ‘consumers‘.
One would hope that lecturers are able to assert, with backing from the dean, that evolutionary biology is an essential part of one’s work – and to suggest that if one’s desire is to fix things made of manufactured lists of parts, one should perhaps consider a career not as a physician, but a garage mechanic.
One would hope.