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
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