Graduation address 13 April 2005

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Graduation address 13 April 2005

     The Occasional Address

    Professor Mark A. Elgar

    Department of Zoology, University of


    8 March, 2006 Conferring of Degrees, (Science)

    University of Melbourne

Thank you Chancellor for inviting me to speak today, and thank you Deputy Vice-

    Chancellor for your kind words of introduction.

And thank you to those who are not graduating for being here and showing support for

    our graduates.

May I also congratulate those of you who did graduate this evening: a terrific


    Last week was the start of semester, and I’m sure many of you will recall those early, anxious days of university life: Will university be all its cracked up to be? Is science the

    right course? Have I chosen the right subjects? Have I chosen the right clothes to wear?

Lots of anxious decisions, and now here you are, three, four or more years later, finally

    free of the anxiety of exams and assessment items, or free of honours theses, or free of

    that awful question ―haven’t you finished your PhD?

Indeed, here we are, accredited intellectuals.

I deliberately use the term intellectual, knowing that we seem to be rather

    uncomfortable with intellectuals.

     There are many pathways to becoming a celebrity in Australia, but being an intellectual

    is not one of them.

Our celebrities have excelled in the world of sport, movies, pop music, even modelling


But there are no adoring fans or intrusive paparazzi following our leading public


Instead, we seem to think of intellectuals as daggy old stuffies, and our public

    intellectuals are more often than not vilified with the university communities copping

    collateral damage.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t disagree with public intellectuals. As Bertrand

    Russell noted ―all intellectuals should suffer a certain amount of persecution as early in

    life as possible. Not too much. That is bad for them. But a certain amount‖.

The issue is whether the disagreement should be in a form that owes more to the

    sledging tactics of our elite cricketers than to any civilised discussion.

So should we should duck for cover and deny our intellectual badge?

Unfortunately, this is not possible.

Professor Mark Elgar Graduation address 13 April 2005

My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is quite explicit: an intellectual is one ―having the

    faculty of understanding‖.

The degree you hold in your hand certifies your capacity to understand; like it or not,

    you are an intellectual.

Of course this not all bad news for any aspiring celebrities among us; intellectuals in

    France may achieve A-list celebrity status, appearing as easily on day-time chat shows

    as on late-night current affairs programs.

But the more serious reason for appealing to your intellect is that I hope you will use it,

    particularly to encourage curiosity and discourse.

My undergraduate experience didn’t pan out the way I had anticipated.

Rather than training me to become an environmental scientist, my course sparked an

    enduring passion for understanding the evolution of animal behaviour.

More importantly, I discovered that you could contribute to that understanding by

    conducting research, and that a University appointment allowed you to be entirely self-

    indulgent effectively self-employed without having to worry too much about where

    the salary comes from.

Of course, I quickly discovered that the reality of an academic position is rather different,

    but that’s another story.

But I’ve no doubt that my colleagues beside me, who have just now received their PhD

    degrees, appreciate the emotions associated with enduring curiosity; the thrill of

    discovering something original or creating a new insight; or that moment when you

    know something that no one else knows.

Research and scholarship is all about discovery, which is fun and deeply satisfying.

     The late Rebecca Elson, an astrophysicist put it perfectly in her poem We Astronomers


    ―We are industrious. We breed enthusiasms, honour our responsibility to awe‖.

     Nevertheless, it is likely that most of you here do not anticipate a career in research,

    and so the question now is what to do next. Life is full of choices. Robert Frost provided

    us with some consolation with his poem The Road Not Taken (1913), which concludes:

    ―I shall be saying this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence:

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I

    I took the one less travelled by,

    And that has made all the difference‖

There are many ways of interpreting this poem; literally, in the context of pathways you University of Melbourne Page 2 of 5take during your life, or more intellectually in the context of whether you challenge

    prevailing views and ask difficult questions, or whether the follow the path of others.

Professor Mark Elgar Graduation address 13 April 2005

    I kept a copy of this poem in my wallet shortly after I finished my honours degree,

    because I wanted to enrol in a PhD in either Europe or the USA, a road that certainly

    proved to be less than straightforward.

     Nevertheless, perseverance paid of and I eventually enrolled in a PhD at the University

    of Cambridge, where I was a research scholar at Christ’s College.

The scholarship was endowed through the generosity of a remarkable woman called Lady

    Margaret Beaufort who, some 500 years ago, persuaded the then King of England, Henry

    VII, to establish Christ’s College in Cambridge.

She did so in the simple belief that education and scholarship were critical for the future

    of England.

Her power of persuasion was probably helped by the fact that Henry VII was her son,

    who she delivered when she was only 13 years old. How times have changed.

     Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that her views on education were echoed by the

    British Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who said in 1874: ―Upon the

    education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends‖.

It is perplexing that this view is no longer fashionable, or at least that the rhetoric

    remains unmatched by financial investment.

My experience in Cambridge was amazing.

     The place is full of curious intellectuals; or should I say individuals driven by intellectual


And for the most part, the reputation of the university derives from people, like Henry

    VII’s mum, who matched a belief in the value of curiosity with deep pockets.

     Ironically, Lady Margaret was a deeply religious and pious woman, and she may have

    been troubled to know that another beneficiary of her foresight was one Charles Darwin,

    who was also a member of Christ’s College.

One of my more enduring memories at Cambridge was when, in the College library, I

    picked up a first edition of Thomas Malthus’ book First Essay on Population, which had had a profound influence on Darwin’s thinking.

The volume seemed unremarkable next to the much older and more valuable books in

    the library, until I noticed that the original owner was none other than Charles Darwin.

So I may not have shaken this extraordinary man’s hand, but our fingers have touched

    the same paper and our eyes have read the same typescript.

My fascination with animal behaviour and especially the bizarre mating strategies of

    males and females has not diminished, and my curiosity has allowed me to travel on

    many roads to different places around the world.

     This has been possible through the generosity of the Australian taxpayer via the

    Australian Research Council, which still sees value in so-called, curiosity-driven research

    such as mine. University of Melbourne Page 3 of 5

    However, the calls for restricting public funding to projects that have obvious practical or

    economic outcomes are getting louder and gaining political traction.

Professor Mark Elgar Graduation address 13 April 2005

    I think the public, perhaps unwittingly, shares the view of the Australian Research Council because research like mine often finds its way into the public arena.

    And some research may even gain celebrity status if it accompanies the dulcet tones of David Attenborough.

     But the thing about curiosity-driven research is that it can also have unexpected outcomes. Let me explain.

Evolutionary biologists are obsessed with the diversity of life.

    Some of us ask questions about differences between species, while others try to understand differences within species.

    For example, one question that puzzles my research group is why males of a local species of orb-weaving spider vary in size by an order of magnitude.

     To put that into perspective if I represented the smaller males and the Chancellor was

    one of the larger males, his many eyes would be looking down at me from above the organ pipes in this hall.

Scary stuff perhaps, but the world wont notice if we find an explanation.

    But it’s the way evolutionary biologists think, rather than what they are thinking about, that may have a more significant contribution.

     I’m sure that most of us have followed, to varying degrees, the apparently inexorable spread of avian flu.

And I’m sure that we all wonder how virulent it will turn out to be.

     That’s where it helps to think like an evolutionary biologist: why are some strains of flu

    associated with high mortality while others are more benign?

     It’s a question a graduate student and I are currently addressing, using data on

    morbidity and mortality rates for influenza within the French Republic.

Some interesting patterns have emerged, and I hope you’ll learn about them in due


    Nevertheless, the fact that we were able to address this question illustrates an important point.

    The data we used is made available by the French Sentinel Network, a publicly funded organisation that collates data provided by general practitioners across the French Republic.

    These doctors are not paid for their efforts and, importantly, the data are easily accessible on the web: you do not require permission and you are not charged for accessing these data.

    The whole enterprise is not driven by some strategic goal, just the belief that obtaining this knowledge is a good thing. University of Melbourne Page 4 of 5

    Perhaps an the underlying assumption is that someone will use their intellect and curiosity to discover any hidden patterns.

Professor Mark Elgar Graduation address 13 April 2005

    I think the English historian GM Trevelyon summed it up nicely: ―Disinterested

    intellectual curiosity is the life blood of real civilisation‖.

This is also the underlying philosophy of public-spirited universities, and I would argue

    that the degree you are holding is a symbol of that philosophy.

So I hope you will take the road less travelled, that you will remain intellectually curious,

    and that you will support public spirited institutions, like the University of Melbourne,

    that champion Trevelyon’s philosophy.

And if you have been, thank you for listening.

University of Melbourne Page 5 of 5

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