I have tried to use this blog to promote the benefits of a broad interest in natural history over the narrow specialisms encouraged by modern academia. Consequently, I was delighted to see this issue receiving serious consideration in an essay in the latest issue of Bioscience: Natural History’s Place in Science and Society. It is open access, so you can read it even if you don’t have a subscription to Bioscience. No excuses, then. I’ve even given you the link.
The authors start with a definition of natural history as “the observation and description of the natural world, with the study of organisms and their linkages to the environment being central.” Natural history, in other words, is inherently cross-disciplinary and multiscaled. Implied, but never actually stated, is that the decline in natural history is a direct consequence of the growth of biochemical and molecular technologies. The latter may be excellent for answering questions about single organisms (and no-one would dispute the benefits for human health) but one cannot avoid knowing more and more about less and less. We need observation-based approaches if we are to ask the right questions in the first place, especially where more than one organism is involved.
I made my own case for this in a paper in Ecological Indicators last year. I was not arguing that there was no place for specialists, only that the day-to-day management of ecosystems needed people who were familiar with a wide range of organisms and who could make high-level decisions drawing on several complementary strands of evidence. The problem is more acute for the lower organisms, the focus of this blog, which lack the charismatic qualities of larger organisms such as birds.
By noting the decline in ‘natural history’ teaching in universities, the authors of the Bioscience essay are locating the cause of the problem in the supply-side of the equation (to use the language of economists). I have also wondered if there is not an issue in the demand for such courses. With the possible exception of bird watching, there has been a general decline in active participation in natural history in favour of ‘consuming’ nature via the television screen. Students come to university enthusiastic about the idea of natural history but find the opportunities for fieldwork to be limited and the reality of fieldwork less appealing. More so, perhaps, if struggling to name unfamiliar organisms (because of their lack of previous experience) in the vagaries of our climate. And, let us not forget, our flora and fauna are so much drabber than at the exotic locations that David Attenborough’s budget lets him visit.
The beauty of the Bioscience essay is that it not only laments the decline in ‘natural history’, it also presents examples of where broad cross-discipline thinking has led to insights that reductionist approaches alone could never have reached. And it has reclaimed the term ‘natural history’ for serious scientists. This, in my opinion, is more than just a matter of semantics. Anyone who uses science to argue for change needs to make the fullest possible use of the grey area between the jargon-filled papers of academic specialists and the non-technical beneficiaries of their endeavour. I’m proud to be a natural historian.
Kelly, M.G. (2013). Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication: building capacity to meet the challenges of the Water Framework Directive. Ecological Indicators 36: 519-523.
Tewksbury, J.J,, Anderson, J.G.T., Bakker, J.D., Billo, T.J., Dunwiddie, P.W., Groom, M.J. Hampton, Herman, S.G, Levey, D.J., Machnicki, N.J., Martinez del Rio, C., Power, M.E., Rowell, K., Salomon, A.K., Stacey, L., Trombulak, S.C. & Wheeler, T.A. (2014). Natural history’s place in science and society. Bioscience 64: 300-310.