Natural History Education in the News

Our paper (Tewksbury et al. 2014 BioScience) on the value of natural history to science and society, continues to generate discussion. Here are links to some thoughtful pieces that support our findings and opinion:

I’ve excerpted some of the most cogent points from the latter piece, written by Jonathan Foley. If you read nothing else, scroll down to the part I have highlighted where Foley describes his daughter’s experience in a biology department bereft of natural history:

This field of study is key to unlocking the secrets of how life on this planet works, and has made major contributions to solving a wide variety of problems in other fields, including human health, disease ecology, food security, environmental toxicology, and ecosystem conservation and management. Without natural history, we’re simply incapable of fully understanding our living world—and its future.

So you would think, given the paramount importance of understanding Earth’s organisms and ecosystems, and how they’re responding to the current environmental crisis, that natural history—and its associated expeditions, observations, and collections—would be thriving today.

But you’d be wrong.

Natural history has all but disappeared as a major discipline in biology. Expeditions are dwindling, and field observations of biology are increasingly dismissed as unimportant. And the support for building, maintaining, and studying natural history collections has declined significantly in recent years. Museums around the world, where much of this work has been done, have struggled to maintain support for their research, expeditions, and collections.

This is not because the museums lack interest in natural history. They simply lack funding. Collections, in particular, are expensive to maintain, and there is almost no outside funding for them. Unfortunately, in the U.S., federal science agencies have largely turned away from supporting natural history and collections-based research. Plus, there are no obvious corporate donors, and no major private foundation giving grants in this area. It’s a virtual funding desert, and it’s getting worse.”

Sadly, the decline of natural history is not just a funding crisis. It has a deeper and more insidious root—the increased reductionism in biological science.

This echoes my own experience as a university professor for over two decades. Hardly any biology students were taking courses focused on natural history, or even anything related to organisms, populations, or ecosystems. Instead, most students took numerous courses in biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics. They seemed to be headed to pharmaceutical research, biotech companies, or medical school. Few, if any, knew anything about the living organisms around them. In fact, I have to wonder how many biology majors today could name the species of birds and trees found in their region, or would understand the flows of water, carbon, and nutrients in their local ecosystem?

I have seen this unfold during my twenty-one years as a university professor. But this recently became even more real for me: My oldest daughter called me up, in tears, saying that she just recently dropped out of her college biology major. When I asked her why, she told me she hated it, and that in two years, she only studied chemistry and genetics, and hadn’t seen a single living thing. Thank goodness there are other, more interdisciplinary majors where she goes to school, like ecology, forestry, environmental science, and geography, which integrate different fields of knowledge, and where you can actually see and study living things. But it’s sad that a typical biology major does not. Biology majors are missing out on a major part of their education, and much of the science about how the natural world works.”



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