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Scott Edwards

Biologist Scott Edwards was born on July 7, 1963 in Honolulu, Hawaii, but he grew up in Riverdale in the Bronx, New York City. From an early age, Edwards was interested in natural history. Before graduating from Harvard University in 1986 with his B.A. degree in biology, he worked at the environmental institute Wave Hill. While earning his undergraduate degree, Edwards took a year off to volunteer at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where he was first exposed to the world of museum research on birds. Upon graduation, Edwards was accepted into the University of California, Berkeley where he worked with bird evolution and graduated with his Ph.D. degree in zoology in 1992. His dissertation focused on songbirds from Australia and New Guinea – using DNA to track their movements and population differences.

Edwards then moved to the University of Florida where he completed an Alfred P. Sloan postdoctoral fellowship in molecular evolution studying avian genetics. In 1994, Edwards joined the faculty at the University of Washington in Seattle where he became an Assistant Professor of Zoology and Curator of Genetic Resources at the University’s Burke Museum. He left in 2003 to assume a professorial position at Harvard University in organismic and evolutionary biology as well as Curator of Ornithology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Edwards’ work has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. He has also served on panels for both of the organizations as well as on the advisory board of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in North Carolina. Edwards served on the editorial boards for the journals Molecular Biology and Evolution , Evolution, Systematic Biology and Conservation Genetics. He has published over 100 papers since the beginning of his undergraduate career. In 2010, Edwards was invited to co-host the six-part SyFy series Beast Legends, reconstructing what mythological creatures may have looked like based on first-person accounts, archaeological evidence, and scientific data.

Edwards was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on …

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Biologist Scott Edwards (1963 - ) is a well known lead researcher in the field of Ornithology at Harvard.


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Harvard University

Best Legends

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Brown, Orange

Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Scott Edwards' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Scott Edwards lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Scott Edwards describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Scott Edwards talks about his mother's schooling and career

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Scott Edwards describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Scott Edwards talks about his father's schooling and career

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Scott Edwards talks about Hawaii

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Scott Edwards talks about his parents' personalities and who he takes after

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Scott Edwards describes his father's medical practice in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Scott Edwards describes the neighborhoods where he was raised in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Scott Edwards describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Scott Edwards describes the sights and sounds and smells of growing up

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Scott Edwards describes his grade school in Manhattan

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Scott Edwards describes his earliest experiences with science

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Scott Edwards talks about his favorite teachers in grade school

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Scott Edwards discusses sports, religion, and the outdoors

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Scott Edwards describes his interest in bird-watching

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Scott Edwards describes his performance in school

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Scott Edwards talks about his siblings

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Scott Edwards describes his experience in high school

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Scott Edwards talks about his decision to major in biology in college

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Scott Edwards describes his experience at Phillips Exeter Academy

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Scott Edwards describes his experience at Wave Hill, an environmental center

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Scott Edwards explains the history of evolutionary biology

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Scott Edwards describes his time in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Scott Edwards describes his volunteer experience at the Smithsonian Institute

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Scott Edwards describes his ornithology-based study in Hawaii

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Scott Edwards talks about his senior thesis

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Scott Edwards describes his experience in New Guinea

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Scott Edwards describes the African American community's perception of evolution

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Scott Edwards notes the importance of evolution

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Scott Edwards describes the focus of his doctoral dissertation

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Scott Edwards provides an overview of evolutionary biology

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Scott Edwards describes what it takes to become an evolutionary biologist

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Scott Edwards discusses the racial implications of specific publications

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Scott Edwards describes the concept of race in biological terms

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Scott Edwards describes living in Florida

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Scott Edwards describes his post-doctoral research at the University of Florida

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Scott Edwards briefly describes his post-doctoral experience at the University of Florida

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Scott Edwards describes the rich wildlife of northern Florida

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Scott Edwards describes his experience at the University of Washington

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Scott Edwards describes his professional responsibilities at Harvard University

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - Scott Edwards describes the collections at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University

Tape: 5 Story: 12 - Scott Edwards describes the evolutionary basis of skin color







Scott Edwards describes his volunteer experience at the Smithsonian Institute
Scott Edwards discusses the racial implications of specific publications
Well, now, tell us what you did at the Smithsonian? This would have been in, what, the summer of--$$It was fall of '82 [1982], I think, and is that right? Yeah, it was after sophomore year, and so it was, I believe fall of '82 [1982] or '83 [1983]. Anyway--$$Okay.$$--yeah, so I was literally numbering bones of specimens. You know, museums have to put catalog numbers on all the bones which required a very steady hand and small writing and just helping out with odd jobs. I got a chance to help do some research for a exhibit that went on, it was an exhibit on the U.S. exploring expedition, which was a, a famous expedition that went out between 1838 and 1843. It was sort of America's first foray into the age of discovery. And that had been dominated by Europe. And it was fascinating. You know, we, I, I had to dig through old archives and, you know, I found this sheaf of papers with all these amazing drawings of fish that had been drawn by naturalists on that expedition. And apparently, this collection of papers had been lost or it hadn't been really seen for decades. And so my mentor there, a guy named George Watson was, was very impressed, and, you know, said, this, wow, this is--I can't believe we found these, these papers. So it was a mix of different things. And George, I remember, spent a lot of time with me. You know, it's, you get these green college students sort of wanting to do something, and, you know, you have to think of stuff for them to do. And George, I remember, was just very generous with his time. And, yeah, we went over to the, the rare book division outside the Natural History Museum, and I just was so impressed with these extraordinary, beautiful volumes, you know, Audubon's [National Audubon Society] drawings, drawings from this U.S. exploring expedition. You know, these are just priceless, and it was just, the quality of the way in which they were cared for was just very, really impressive to me.$$Okay, now, now, the connection you made with the Smithsonian, and did you know George Watson before or did someone at Howard [University] recommend, I mean at Harvard [University] recommend--?$$I, you know, I don't, I know I wrote to George probably as a, in the spring of my sophomore year. And I don't know whether I got his name from someone here, possibly, or whether I wrote to just the ornithology department in general. But he was the one that answered, yeah, and it was, you know, it was very impressive, to get a typewritten letter on Smithsonian [Institution] letterhead. And so, yeah, that was, that was great. I had a, definitely a very healthy habit of writing letters. I think even in my freshman year, I was just bombarding the community with letters, asking about, what do you need to study going in this particular area of study? I was writing to people at the American Museum [of Natural History, in New York], just curious about different sightings, and different questions and so I wish I had some of those letters. I'm sure they were, you know, naive and humorous, and by, different turns. But, you know, and, of course, maybe one out of twenty people would actually respond. But that's, that's the whole point, right, you know, just sort of cast the net wide and (laughter) see who responds.$$Now, does the Smithsonian have the largest collection of bird specimens in the country or--$$It's, you know, I think it's not the largest in the country. No, it's--or the world. I mean it's a very impressive collection. It's, I believe it's got the second largest, after the American Museum [of Natural History] in New York. So, but it's, you know, even then it was just a global resource, and you can just walk the aisles there and just see any species you'd want. And it was really impressive to me to, you know, there were serious people working on specimens, skeletons. It wasn't some sort of dilettantish thing. I mean these were really, there were pressing questions that people wanted to answer. And that, that was really impressive to me.$All right. I asked, we mentioned before the book, 'The Mismeasure of Man,' and I was asked to ask you about that, in specific, because of its implications, its racial implications.$$Right, right. Yeah, I mean it's, you know, you'd like to think we were beyond that, that period, although remarkably, it, it still raises its ugly head in various forms. I mean what was this book, called the, 'The Bell Curve'--$$Right, right.$$--you know, published by a Harvard psychologist. So everyone's always trying to focus on the, the--and interpret the differences between humans. But evolutionary biology is, I think, exciting because a lot of it is focused on the similarities. I mean what makes us similar. And so, you know, a lot of people would be surprised to learn that humans as a species are genetically very similar to each other, even Africans versus Asians, versus Caucasians from Europe. I mean we have so few genetic differences. I can go into the backyard, and any backyard snake or rat will have far more genetic diversity than humans would. And so I think evolutionary biology for me is exciting in that way, and we tend, we often focus on the similarities between individuals and species rather than the differences. Of course, the differences are, are what makes it exciting, but it's, you know, and it's very challenging to--you know, I would say defining the characteristics of an organism that you wanna study. That's in some ways the most challenging part. How do you define intelligence? I mean I would say it's, it's a very difficult thing to do. And so--$$Yeah, I even hear with, well, animal intelligence, I know they're constantly redefining where that is because, you know, they, at one time I heard that a pig was smarter than another animal--$$Right.$$--and then, you know, and a dog was way down on the list-- Right (laughter).$$--and, you know, but when humans interact with animals, it's usually a dog. Right, exactly (laughter).$$And the chimp is closer to us, but, and yet, chimps don't respond well to human beings--$$(Laughter) That's right.$$--you know, I--$$Yeah, I mean, well, I don't know if intelligence is necessarily a, it shouldn't necessarily be a human-centric trait, right? I mean there's all sorts of intelligence out there, and, you know, the fact is most species on the planet have been here a lot longer than the human species has, and so maybe just persistence time is the best measure of intelligence (laughter), you know. If we're lucky enough not to extinguish ourselves, then maybe we can be considered intelligent (laughter).$$So it's a subjective measurement, I don't know--$$Yeah, so, I mean I'm not a psychologist, but you can't, I'm very skeptical of certain universal measures of intelligence, I would say.$$Yeah, it would have to be, you'd have establish a standard based on something that, you know--I mean that's the only way to qualify it, I guess--$$That's right.$$--you'd have to say, well, intelligence based on this--$$That's right.$$--factor or that factor.$$Exactly.$$And, you know, so, yeah.$$I mean it's, it's, yeah, it's just, it's just very difficult to characterize mental and, you know, to sort of (unclear) of behavioral traits. I mean it's not, not impossible. I mean you can measure how much an animal moves or how deep a burrow it can dig or how, whether it migrates or not. Those are things that you can quantify, but I think one of the things about evolutionary biology and, and sort of science in general that I like is that, you know, you have to, you can't speculate based on a little bit of data. You have to interpret the facts that you collect in a way that's commensurate with those facts. You can't just begin to speculate. And so what you can talk about in terms of a conclusion of a study is dependent on what you measure and, and, and what you can confidently measure. And so, in that sense, you know, there's some characteristic of animals which I would say are much easier to talk about and discuss than others.