Natural decline

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Few biology degrees still feature natural history. Is the naturalist a species in crisis?

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.

Written By: Nature
continue to source article at nature.com

7 COMMENTS

  1. 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.

    Yes! It is happening! I note one of our local universities has closed its botanic garden last year in response to budget cuts!
    It would require thousands of miles of field-work to compare related species in the wild without such reference collections.

    • In reply to #2 by zula:

      religion is evolving at an alarming pace and biology is going extinct it seems

      Did you read the article? It hardly said that biology is going extinct. It’s just that emphasis is shifting to things like molecular biology. I don’t know enough about how biology is or should be taught to have a strong opinion but I feel as if I see this kind of complaint from academics in general every once in a while. Not enough humanities, not enough foreign languages, oh where will our future art historians come from? And so on. Not that I’m saying too few naturalists is equivalent to not enough art historians. I just don’t think this justifies claiming biology is near extinction.

  2. A few years ago there were similar warnings, notably from the Linnean Society of London, about the truncation of the supply of taxonomists through a lack of teaching courses. It was later debated in the Lords, I believe.

    University botanic gardens (St Andrews, Newcastle and abroad in Finland and the Netherlands) are under threat, herbaria are closing and many existing experts (taxonomists, field botanists, collectors etc) are near to or beyond retirement age.

    I recently contributed to a projected smartphone app for floral recognition from a photo and wouldn’t be surprised to learn that DNA testing in the field isn’t far away. The problem with this shrinkage of resources is less about recognition as such than with the loss of expertise and understanding about what is particular to the plant world.

    Crucially conservation needs the skills of recognition, understanding gained through research and of planning based on knowledge. The removal of formal botany from university curricula compounds damage to the environment especially where the designation of statutory sites (RAMSAR, NNR, SSSI, LNR SINC et al) requires these skills. It reduces the impediment to development.

    Douglas Adams and many others have pointed out our tendency to see only what we ‘know’. The inverse of this (the ‘Someone Else’s Problem’ field) is also common.

    In the UK one of our best (relatively) young taxonomists lost his job recently managing a large and useful herbarium, to which he had contributed notably as an expert field botanist. This man has done ground breaking work on stat’s of bioassays, autecological studies of endangered species and investigations of several large apomictic genera. He is one of our very few National experts and should be a ‘National Treasure’. Invaluable, except to those ignorant enough of science and keen to ignore anything not supporting economic ‘growth’.

    A cancerous growth, usually of unevidenced economic theory, damaging the primary status of science amongst the survival skills of our own species.

  3. If the “average” is zero, does that mean some degrees require one course and some others require negative one course?? Yes, I know The average of one and zero and zero is still zero. Just being a smart-ass.

    • In reply to #5 by paulalovescats:

      If the “average” is zero, does that mean some degrees require one course and some others require negative one course?? Yes, I know The average of one and zero and zero is still zero. Just being a smart-ass.

      0.3 recurring.

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