“The forgotten science: a role for natural history in the twenty-first century?”

“The forgotten science: a role for natural history in the twenty-first century?” by Beehler, Bruce M., J. Field Ornithol. 81(1):1–4, 2010.

Excerpt – … the study of biology has gradually shifted from the field to the molecular lab, and the role of the naturalist has steadily diminished over the last century. While university biology departments grow and diversify and then divide into more specialized units, the pure study of nature languishes or is relegated to short courses at university field stations or local nature organizations.

This has led to an intellectual split, separating natural history’s
descriptive mode versus science’s embrace of the hypothetico-deductive method. The latter achieved dominant market share in the university because that was where science belonged—in the rational world of hypothesis-testing and experimentation. Na- ture, on the other hand, has always begged to be
described, illustrated, appreciated, conserved— not tested.

So, today, the great cutting-edge science is mainly done in the universities and research institutes. Much of the study of evolution, systematics, and biogeography is led by curators in natural history museums. And the apprecia- tion and conservation of nature resides largely with the not-for-profits, such as the Audubon Societies, the Conservation Internationals, and the World Wildlife Funds.

So, what’s wrong with this picture? What’s missing is that in that
historical division of roles, the comprehensive pursuit of natural history study as an academic pursuit has been largely discarded as superfluous. What has been deemed irrelevant by the universities because of its descriptive aspect is now needed—urgently—to guide the management of the resources of
planet earth.

Knowledge of natural history is equivalent to knowledge of how the earth works. We need to know how the earth works so we can better manage the earth’s resources and conserve all life on earth, for the ultimate benefit of humankind. It is the study of natural history that will provide the solutions to saving the earth.

In other words, our future and the future of the earth depend on more and better study of natural history. We cannot afford to relegate the science of natural history to the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and field stations. We need to expand greatly the study of natural history and we need
to raise up natural history to again stand among the leading pursuits honored by universities and research institutes, as well as museums and NGOs.

The mandate of natural history is to tell nature’s story. This can be in the form of a paper in a scientific journal, a popular book for general readers, a website, or a global database. Natural history’s mandate includes biodiversity surveys, studies of the life histories of wild species, descriptions of habitats, and explanations of why the natural world is the way it is.

It is very broad mandate, and the unlimited scope of its audience and form of its products make natural history the most powerful tool we have for engaging society, fostering the conservation of wild lands and species, and conserving and being wise stewards of the earth’s natural resources.

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