Thursday, 5 January 2017

Teaching Natural History

Edward Forbes F.R.S., the eminent Victorian, was approached by a Dr Drew of Southampton for his views on the teaching of Natural History. In his letter of reply, dated 27th December 1852, Forbes writes [1]:

The question is one to which a satisfactory answer cannot readily be given. It is one over which I have often pondered with much anxiety, believing that the study of Natural History will sooner or later become general in this country, and be accepted as a necessary branch of general education. Some accurate and systematic knowledge of the natural productions of our planet, and of its geological structure and history, should surely be possessed by every well-educated person, and ought to be taught to youths of all classes. Moreover, there can scarcely be a better, certainly not a more engaging exercise for the logical faculties than the practice of Natural History observation, and the distinguishing and defining of affinities and analogies.

Forbes goes on to list the modes of teaching - by lectures, instruction in small classes, and by the use of museums of preserved material - and how these might be structured. He also mentions the need for field visits and the importance of having the best teachers:

The mere 'popular lecturer' is too often a man [this being a time when lecturing was a male occupation] who gets up a subject with which he has little or no practical acquaintance. However pleasing his discourse may sound to the ear, it makes but little impression on the mind of his hearers. The more eminent the lecturer (as an original investigator), provided always that he has the gift of telling his story clearly and fluently, the more permanently interested will his audience be.

The latter is the ideal, of course, but not all teachers have the qualities of Edward Forbes.

Do Forbes' comments about the importance of Natural History, expressed in the first quotation above, have relevance today. They certainly apply to Geology, but Modern Biology, with its focus on genetics and molecules, has become allied to Medicine. As a result, there are more funds, and job opportunities, in Biomedicine than in other branches of Biology.

If training students for professions is considered the most important role of schools, colleges and universities, teaching Natural History as a subject is a non-starter. Yet the same could also be said of teaching Classics, Philosophy, History and similar disciplines that provide a useful training in ways of thinking, means of tackling problems, or for developing a suite of transferable skills. Viewed in this light, what would someone gain from the contemporary study of Natural History?

(1) Natural Historians appreciate all living things and the environment in which they live. Biologists are familiar with the role of the genotype and its effect on the phenotype, but the environment (in its widest sense) is sometimes ignored, yet this provides the ultimate means of selection of genotypes. We cannot ignore the environment in which we, and all other living organisms, live.

(2) Individual organisms vary in their appearance and behaviour. All Natural Historians know of this individuality, although there are considerable similarities within a species and considerable differences between species.

(3) The diversity of living organisms, and the way that they have evolved to adapt to different environmental conditions, is awe-inspiring. First-hand observations of individuals and their adaptations, devoid of anthropomorphic interpretations, show what is possible through evolution, yet we rarely make such observations. Much of our information on Natural History comes from TV screens, VDUs and other media, so that we share the observations of others and this has an effect on the way we question what we see, if we question it at all.

(4) In an age of relentless anthropocentricity, Natural Historians provide a counterpoint and a more holistic approach to the World, with an understanding of the relationships between life, death, decomposition, waste products and food..

Many other advantages of a training in Natural History can be put forward, but surely the ways of thinking outlined above are of value in all jobs and careers? Why don't we follow the advice of Edward Forbes and teach Natural History as a subject in schools, colleges and universities?

[1] George Wilson and Archibald Geikie (1861) Memoir of Edward Forbes, F.R.S. Edinburgh, Macmillan and Co..

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