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Carr, The Scientist
Carr, The Scientist

Just as there are species of bugs, there are species of biologists. Archie F. Carr, Jr. clearly belonged to a species that dates to the dawn of the science—the naturalist.

It's no stretch to say that Carr came from the same intellectual stock as some of the most famous naturalists in the history of biology. He cut his early academic teeth on taxonomy, the scientific classification of living things invented by the great 18th-century Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus. Carr's passion for nature, his raw lust for being in the wild, harked to the halcyon days of John James Audubon and William Bartram.

Carr called himself a "whole—animal" biologist—a scientist mainly interested in studying animals living in their natural habitats. From the time he'd been old enough to hold a fishing pole, wade a creek with his dad, or tote a shotgun behind a bird hound, Carr had sensed an innate affinity with—and curiosity about—wild things.

But just as he was getting on track with his academic career in zoology at the University of Florida in the late 1930s, the entire world of biological science faced monumental change. Research into the life sciences was about to shift into a whole new dimension that threatened to turn "whole—animal" naturalists such as Carr into museum pieces.

By the mid-50s, the entire field of biology was transformed by discoveries made not in the field but in comfy labs equipped with powerful microscopes. Serious biological research had become all about dissecting individual cells, genes, and even molecules, as opposed to slimy or hairy beasts snatched fresh from the field. Molecular biology, aimed at understanding life's chemical and physical underpinnings, fueled a wide variety of disciplines—wild focusing on how genes worked.

Traditional methods of differentiating species of plants and animals—the taxonomical talents that had jump-started Carr's career—were eclipsed by clever new tools and know-how of geneticists and molecular biologists. Well before he died in 1987, Carr lived to see developments in his own department that he could never have imagined when he began his career.

At every turn, he saw his own specialties—in taxonomy, field ecology and natural history—marginalized by molecular biology, flush with the lion's share of federal research funding in the life sciences. Toward the end of his spectacular career, Carr was throwing up his hands. "You can't get a job in zoology being the kind of biologist I was anymore," he told an interviewer. In his biography of Carr, historian Fritz Davis puts Carr's career into perspective.

"The pervasive view is that natural history became anachronistic during Carr's time, but I don't see it that way," he said. "Carr certainly represented a transition between 19th-century and 20th-century biology, but I believe that natural history as practiced by Carr continued to inform all the biological disciplines—particularly ecology and evolution—and still does today." —F.S.