Following the footsteps of Darwin and Wallace into… Facebook and Twitter?

What would Darwin and Wallace have been doing in this age of online social networks? Or more accurately, had these social networking tools been available to them in their century? Would they have maintained active Facebook pages to share stories (blog posts, really) from their adventures on the high seas, and their many fascinating discoveries about the animals and plants they encountered? Would they have tweeted their emerging insights into the process of Evolution by Natural Selection, or revealed them one Facebook update at a time?

Darwin FB

If you look at the sheer volume of correspondence these gentlemen maintained during the 19th century (Darwin’s letters; Wallace’s letters), and the number of books they wrote for the public (i.e., non-academic readers), you’d have to think the answer to all of the above questions would have to be a fairly enthusiastic “yes“! Well, except may be that last one about sharing the theory of evolution, which Darwin (at least) might still have preferred to keep under wraps. In general, though, even a cursory reading of the biographies of these gentlemen naturalists makes it clear that they were really plugged in, well connected with their contemporary networks of naturalists (amateur and professional) and scientists throughout the western world, as well as in the remote countries where they traveled collecting rocks, fossils, plants, and animals.

Would Darwin have even heard of Wallace’s independent discovery of the principle of Natural Selection if not for the social network of the day, which led the latter to mail Darwin a copy of his paper on the subject? And it was Darwin’s own network of friends (like Huxley) who knew about his earlier discovery of the principle, who made sure he got the credit he deserved. 

And without the extent of Darwin’s correspondence and social connectedness, would we have the wonderful story of Darwin’s last act of kindness towards a beetle collected by a fellow beetle-fancier and show salesman, narrated wonderfully by David Quammen in one of my absolute favorite radio segments: Charles Darwin and the Racing Asparagus?

Which is why I believe that Darwin and Wallace and the many active biologists of their generation would have absolutely been blogging about their work, and would have been early adopters of our 21st century social communication tools such as Facebook and Twitter and Google+. I am delighted that someone has set up twitter accounts in both their name (@cdarwin; @ARWallace). And I believe we modern day biologists have much to gain by following in their footsteps, and making the most of these tools to not only communicate our discoveries, but to also build collaborations, bring large datasets together, and in so many other ways, actually further the very process of conducting our science.

My own collaborative research and writing ventures over the past decade have relied greatly upon my being active in the blogosphere, and on twitter and Facebook. Yet so many of my colleagues remain skeptical of the value of online social networks, and continue to consider it a waste of time. The snootiness of some in today’s academic ivory towers towards such common communication baffles me. But their ranks are shrinking every day as more and more of my friends and colleagues are beginning to use Facebook and twitter, some of them even setting up blogs.

And so, when my friend Sue Bertram (blog, twitter) recently asked me to help write a paper addressing our luddite colleagues to tell them about the value of online social networking tools, and also how to use them and make the most of them, I jumped at the chance. We had fun writing the paper during our respective parallel sabbaticals: me bumming around in India, Sue surfing along the central California coast. Indeed, we would have had a much harder time writing this paper if not for twitter and dropbox, the two pillars of our collaboration (in this instance). I am happy to announce that our paper has just been published in the Future of Publication section of open access online journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution!

So point your browsers this way and download today:

Bertram, S. and Katti, M. 2013. The Social Biology Professor: Effective Strategies for Social Media Engagement. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 6:22-31. doi:10.4033/iee.2013.6.5.f.

We hope you find it useful, and welcome any thoughts or comments you might have on the paper – either on the journal website or right here, under this post.

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