What has become of the naturalists of yesteryear — the vicar with the magnifying glass and pressed flower collection, or the gentleman scientist with butterfly nets and a shotgun? Those dedicated observers of the natural world in all its complexity are still among us. But they are harder to pick out now; they are men and women, students and citizens. And they clutch not sample jars but smartphones.
In an article published late last month (J. J. Tewksbury et al. BioScience http://doi.org/r5g; 2014), Joshua Tewksbury, a naturalist and director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute at the conservation group WWF in Gland, Switzerland, and 16 colleagues issue a call to arms. They chronicle the dismaying diminution of support for natural history — that branch of science that encompasses the careful observation and description of organisms and their relations to their environments. Like all good scientists, they offer the data to support their assertion.
In the United States of 1950, an undergraduate degree in biology generally required two or more courses in natural history. Today, the average number of required natural-history courses for the same degree is zero. The amount of natural-history content in biology textbooks has dropped by 40% over the past six decades. PhDs granted in natural-history-related fields are becoming ever rarer. Biological collections are on the wane as well. The number of herbaria — research collections of plant specimens — in Europe and North America peaked in 1990.
Research in the life sciences is not created or destroyed: it simply shifts from one form to another. As natural history has been de-emphasized, molecular biology, genetics, experimental biology and ecological modelling have flourished. But here is the problem: many of those fields ultimately rely on data and specimens from natural history. Natural-history observations help to fight infectious diseases that cycle through different species, to identify promising leads for drug discovery, to manage fisheries and forests and other natural resources and to conserve species and ecosystems.
As Tewksbury and his colleagues write: “Direct knowledge of organisms — what they are, where they live, what they eat, why they behave the way they do, how they die — remains vital to science and society.” The best algorithms in the world will fail to guide our action accurately if they are not based on a firm understanding of what is out there and what it’s up to.
Revitalizing natural history will require tweaking the research incentives of grants and academic tenure. The BioScience article is right to call for natural historians to go out and stress the enduring importance of their craft to universities, funding agencies, foundations and the public. No biology student should get a diploma without at least a single course in identifying organisms and learning basic techniques for observing and recording data about them. Top journals should publish excellent natural history; the revived ‘Natural History Miscellany’ section in American Naturalist is a good first step.
“No biology student should get a diploma without at least a single course in identifying organisms.”
Natural history itself can adapt to help. It should continue to expand beyond the elite, lone naturalist. New digital tools, including mobile versions of field guides (such as the Leafsnap app, which can identify tree species from photographs, and the Chirp! app, which helps users to recognize bird songs), are lowering the bar for entry for those without training. And digital data repositories — such as eBird, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, and the New York-based National Audubon Society — mean that today’s naturalists can share and compare their observations. These tools can be used by the general public to build big data sets, which can feed into experiments or models.
As scientists from Yale University point out in a Comment piece on page 33, such data sets are also crucial for other purposes: to hold to account the official government figures that, for one reason or another, do not accurately reflect the situation on the ground, in the air or in the seas.
Natural history has never been just about the science. It is a craft and a passion with its own immediate aesthetic and visceral pleasures, the epitome of a positive relationship with nature. The smartphone, as the most ubiquitous representative of an increasingly digital culture, has often been held up as the pernicious opposite of a direct relationship with the natural world. But technology can be used as a tool to draw us closer to nature as well as a screen to block our view.
The dedicated observers are still there. They tramp through the woods on cold winter nights, their breath visible in the moonlight. They play the calls of the great horned owl on their smartphones. And the great horned owls call back.
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