Monday 18 May 2015

The decline of Natural History

In an article in BioScience, Joshua Tewksbury and 16 co-authors point out the decline in the study of Natural History in Colleges and Universities in the USA, at a time when we are in strong need of this discipline. They conclude [1]:

A renewed focus on the natural history of organisms is central to the growth of basic and use-inspired research and is also a critical step toward sustainable management and toward providing increased predictive capacities and improved outcomes across disciplines as diverse as health, agriculture, and conservation. However, natural history in the twenty-first century will look different from that of the nineteenth as this fundamental knowledge is applied to new frontiers and as new technologies are used in the practice of natural history. Despite these differences, however, the importance of natural history to science and society remains timeless.

The article prompted Jennifer Frazer to make a post on The Artful Amoeba blog in Scientific American with the emotive title: "Natural History is Dying, and We Are All the Losers" [2]. She writes:

As a child, I had access to something that few children do today: nature. I remember roaming the big yard and woods around our rural Tennessee home solo at four, five, six years old. That quiet time wandering, listening, and looking among the loblolly pines and playing in the red dirt planted a love in me of nature that didn't germinate until years later.

While she would have liked to have studied Natural History at University, it was not available as a subject in its own right and she bemoans the lack of Natural History training among contemporary teachers (the lack of knowledge also applies to parents, I think). Frazer continues:

When kids do not grow up around natural history, they become adults who are not only ignorant of natural history, but who do not care about nature and view it as disposable and unimportant.

In schools, "environmental education" has often replaced natural history, with its emphasis on general structures and concepts like food webs or trophic levels.

However, she points out that any child using a microscope has:

..access to a fascinating universe of mites, springtails, and nematodes easily viewable in a bit of compost or soil.. .. and is a far more engaging experience than mindlessly flipping through photos in an exhibit or randomly pushing buttons.  

This need for first-hand experience is a point well made and it is not only important for recognising the diversity of Natural History, but also how each organism affects other organisms and the processing of organic and inorganic matter. Natural History then becomes more than scientific study and includes something very rewarding, giving us a sense of wonder at all the life around us, of which we are such a dominant part. Harking back to the Nineteenth Century heyday of Natural History, it is what Philip Henry Gosse called the Romance of Natural History. Gosse was fascinated by all the living things around him and made a special study of aquatic organisms, observed using aquaria or in small dishes viewed under a microscope. This is what Henry Gosse wrote in the Preface to The Romance of Natural History [3]:

There are more ways than one of studying natural history. There is Dr Dryasdust's way; which consists of mere accuracy of definition and differentiation; statistics as harsh and dry as the skins and bones in the museum where it is studied. There is the field-observer's way; the careful and conscientious accumulation and record of facts bearing on the life-history of the creatures; statistics as fresh wand bright as the forest or meadow where they are gathered in the dewy morning. And there is the poet's way; who looks at nature through a glass peculiarly his own; the æsthetic aspect, which deals, not with statistics, but with the emotions of the human mind,-surprise, wonder, terror, revulsion, admirations, love, desires, and so forth,-which are made energetic by the contemplation of creatures around him.

It would be a pity if we lost sight of the latter when studying the Natural History of animals, plants and micro-organisms, as it is an aspect that clearly excites our interest in much of what we see around us. However, organisms need to be seen in their natural surroundings or, if collected for close examination, then viewed with a lens or microscope to enhance observations.


Of course, many wonders of Natural History cannot be seen unless one travels to other countries and, failing that, we become dependent on television, video, photographs, and electronic images to give us information. As alluded to by Jennifer Frazer, the danger is that media images can be manipulated and stacked with all the other images that we receive and often have anthropocentric commentary, or fantasy, added. That's not the Romance of Natural History and nor is it related to the science of the subject.

Sometimes, it is possible to feel that the decline of Natural History has come with the burgeoning of received information through various media, yet it is vital that we continue its study, both formally in schools and universities, and as an absorbing hobby for all of us. Natural History is something in which we should all have a first-hand interest and embracing the Romance, as well as the other aspects, brings both satisfaction and a clearer understanding of the position of humans on Earth. Long live the spirit of Henry Gosse for showing us the way.

[1] Joshua J. Tewksbury and 16 co-authors (2014) Natural History's Place in Science and Society. BioScience 64: 300-310.

[3] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) The Romance of Natural History. London, J. Nisbet and Co.

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