“Alabama transforms the way the world sees itself”

Leading up to our announcement this week of keynote speakers for our 2018 event, A Day for Science, we’ll take a look back at the talk given in 2017 by speaker Bill Finch, who reviewed a few of the many important contributions Alabamians have made to science, and the inspiring range of natural diversity in our state. The following is a transcription of Bill’s remarks, edited for clarity.

Speaker Bill Finch 2 960
Speaker Bill Finch

“You know, if we were gonna put our foot down for science, it’s very important that we’re doing it right here, in Bienville Square, in Mobile, and in Alabama. There’s no more appropriate place, no better place that we could do it. Alabama has inspired science, has changed the way we view science, and changed the way we view life and the world in ways you may not recognize.

There was this guy about 175 years ago, a guy named Charles Lyell who was trying to figure out, “How old was the world? Is it 5000 years old?” And he was looking around the world for unique places that would help him understand how old the world was. And there is a very unusual place up the Alabama River, just up above the delta, that just rains little tiny fossil creatures – forams, foraminifera – and he began collecting them from that place and comparing them to other places in the world. And Charles Lyell, because of that, wrote a great book and became sort of the father of time, the first person to really put together for the first time the concept of a world that’s very very old. That book written by Charles Lyell went on board a ship called The Beagle with Charles Darwin, and it influenced how Charles Darwin saw the world, and thus these little creatures from Alabama suddenly became very important in the theory of evolution and how we see the whole world.

You know, a little later, in fact about six blocks that way [gesturing], a guy named Charles Mohr, a pharmacist here in Mobile decided, “You know, this is a pretty diverse state, this is a pretty interesting place I live in, we need to understand what’s here.” And Charles Mohr about 1903 put together the first botanical volume, the first state botanical volume ever done in the United States. It was really seminal; it guided how other people saw the world and saw their own states, and it became very very important: The Plant Life of Alabama by Charles Mohr.

In 1940, there’s a guy – they called him Snake Boy – and Snake Boy lived about six or seven blocks that way [gesturing in the opposite direction], and he’d get on his bike, and he would ride out to the causeway, and he would catch snakes, bring them back. Everybody knew him as Snake Boy. He loved the world around him. Later on he got really interested in ants – collected some unusual ants here, and was the first person to identify, by species, the ant we know and love so much as the fire ant here in Alabama. Ed Wilson, E.O Wilson. He lived six blocks from here, was thrilled by this place he grew up in, inspired by it, and really changed the way we see evolutionary biology. He created it as a modern field of study in many ways, and his theories of island biogeography have influenced the way we view diversity in biology and certainly his books over the years have done that. Six blocks away.

Up the Alabama River a little piece, just a little farther up on the Coosa, there was a girl growing up, and she loved the birds, loved the bird life that she saw along the Coosa River, the upper end of the Alabama River. And so she did an immense amount of study, Patty Gowaty, and she realized that, “You know, we bring all these weird prejudices to our world, and just looking at the birds, looking at what is happening, maybe it’s not the way we think.” And Patty became the first person to realize that our gender biases really had influenced the way we saw speciation taking place and we saw how natural selection takes place. She has transformed, to much controversy, the way we view gender in natural selection. Patty Gowaty. Great scientists who are here, inspired by this incredible place.

Up the river here a little ways: one of the great centers of oak diversity in North America, north of Mexico. Who would have thought it, in Monroe County? Here on the edge of the delta in three counties: the center of turtle diversity for the western hemisphere. Astonishing. Alabama: the greatest number of fish species in the United States, more than any other state. What an inspiring place to live. What an inspiring place to do science. We need to put more emphasis on science here in Alabama, because Alabama transforms the way the world sees itself. Thank y’all.”