Like most second-year graduate students, most of my day may be spent in a semi-philosophical state in which I contemplate Where I Am, Where I Want To Be, and What It’s All About. Today I decided to take a different track and think about where comparative fish (skull) morphology has been, in order to better look down the road at where I want to go. With this in mind, I opened William K. Gregory’s tome on the subject, “Fish Skulls: A Study of the Evolution of Natural Mechanisms” (which I asked for for Christmas, as I am sure all you other fish enthusiasts did as well).
This particular part of the Preface caught my attention. In 1933 Gregory lamented that the motto of the Ichthyology Universe was “Analysis must precede synthesis.” He continues:
“Two or three recent papers, however, which are of a broader scope [than familial discrimination and the construction of artificial keys], raise the hope that more ichthyologists may become more actively interested in the relationships as well as in the differences between fishes, and that the unfortunate and unnecessary separation of taxonomy, from both phylogeny and the study of nature’s mechanisms, may be completely abolished in this country and abroad.”
Skipping over the parallels between his word choice and the Gettysburg address, I will say that this passage struck a chord with me. In many ways Ichthyology seems to have advanced in exactly the direction that Gregory hoped for. In recent years, we have made great strides towards untangling the relationships across the entire fish tree. Furthermore, the Wainwright lab and others have begun to synthesize this phylogenetic information with morphological and functional data, learning about the main axes of diversity among all fishes, the tradeoffs (or lack thereof) in feeding strategies, patterns of diversification between reef and non-reef fishes, etc. Reading these words, 80 years later, I realized how exciting it is to be studying fish with so many tools, technologies, resources, and historical groundwork to run with.
So thanks, William K. Gregory, for this piece of inspiration today.