In his book Moving Towards Stillness , Dave Lowry discusses the squirrelly approach to Budo*, citing ancient writings by Hsun Tsu**:
The squirrel can do five things: He can climb a tree, swim, dig a hole, jump, and run. All these are within its capacity, yet he does none well.
The analogy is to people who try to train in many different Martial Arts but end up not excelling at any, with a superficial understanding of all.
I find that in interdisciplinary fields like Computational Biology we, and more worryingly our students, may end up like the squirrel. Admittedly, I find quite a few papers in the Bioinformatics field to be like that: Yet another method which is not particularly interesting computationally, accompanied with shallow understanding of the underlying biology. Such papers end up not really advancing our methods, tools, or our biological understanding. Many are well intended I’m sure, but the end result is not great. So what are we to do in our own scientific practice and when raising the next generation of scientist?
Dave’s advice is to concentrate on a single discipline in which you gain significant expertise and deep understanding. In Martial Arts, that can take a good ten years or so. However, Martial Arts tend to have many shared principles (more on those in later posts) and so by identifying and internalizing those one can later more easily learn from other Martial Arts, bringing more insights and depth to his/her original practice. Practicing hard and earnestly also teaches you *how* to learn, an ability that serves you well when you later expand to other disciplines.
The analogy in Science is to have a good foundation in some area, then add to it. If not, we run the risk of creating Bioinformaticians (including ourselves) that will have a hard time pushing the boundary of current knowledge.
Now, with all that said, to be perfectly honest squirrels do seem to excel at something (a point Hsun Tsu may have not realized or chose to ignore): They are very good at being squirrels. In fact, squirrels are one of the few mammalian families endemic to Eurasia, Africa, North America and South America, starting some 36 millions ago in North America . So, while they may have not excelled at Hsun Tsu’s five tasks, they certainly have been around far longer than us, having their place in the grand scheme of things. And they probably don’t care much if some philosophers think highly of them or not.
P.S: Wait, didn’t I promise a connection to software development as well?
Well, this post has grown long already, so this will have to wait for the next time.
*Bu – Martial, Do – way; a Japanese term referring to the Martial Arts.
**An influential Chinese Neo-Confucian philosopher from the third century BC
 Moving Toward Stillness: Lessons in Daily Life from the Martial Ways of Japan, Dave Lowry, Tuttle Publishing, 1999
 The effects of Cenozoic global change on squirrel phylogeny., J.M. Mercer & V.L. Roth, Science, 2003
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