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Natural History is Dying, and We Are All the Losers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A few weeks ago, I came across a new paper in BioScience called “Natural History’s Place in Science and Society” that contained the following graph.

The minimum number of natural history–related courses required for a BS degree in biology in US institutions (the bars; the median is indicated within each bar) and the proportion of introductory biology texts devoted to natural history–related material (the circles, right axis; see the supplemental material). The error bars represent the (positive) standard error of the mean.

On the right axis and indicated by the line surrounded by dots is the proportion of introductory biology texts devoted to natural history since 1935.

The left axis and the bars show the minimum number of natural history-related courses required for a BS degree in biology in US colleges and universities since 1955. The median number is indicated in writing inside the bar. You’ll note that since 1995, the median number of courses has been zero. Zilch. Zip.

In other words, the people society depends on to know the most about life — people with college biology degrees — in nearly all cases have no obligation to learn anything about actual living organisms. To me, this is a shocking dereliction.

My Story

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. It wasn’t until late high school, in fact, that I realized I loved biology and wanted to be a biologist (incredibly, in middle school and early high school I thought I wanted to be a lawyer).

But within two years of arriving at college, I knew two things. 1) I loved biology with all my heart. 2) I could never be a biologist. The thought of interminable hours spent in a windowless room staring at tubes of clear liquids and working on one tiny slice of molecular biology to the exclusion of all other intellectual curiosities depressed me beyond belief. I wanted to be a generalist — to study lots of different kinds of things. It got so bad I felt physically ill every time it was time to go into the lab where I was doing my independent research. And yet I had no desire to change my major. I LOVED biology.

In oceanography my freshman year of college, we studied ocean currents, salinity, and the ecology of plankton. We studied vague notions of food webs and nutrient cycling rather than learning what dinoflagellates or copepods were. The chapters on the diversity of life in the ocean? We skipped those. But those were the ones I wanted to read most.

I loved the classes especially that taught me about the diversity of life, that took me out into the field to see it up close, that let me watch it moving and wiggling under the microscope, that let me dissect animals or flowers to see how they worked, that taught me about their evolution and the history of life on Earth. But no biologist did that stuff any more — at least not for the major part of their time. What they did, I found, was sit in an office staring at a computer screen writing grant applications and papers or creating computer models of their organisms or studying molecular biology. Occasionally, they went to meetings or mentored students or taught a class. That was *not* the bill of goods I felt I’d been sold on what biology was — and what it meant to be a biologist — as a child.

A life as a biologist would, ironically, prevent me from learning about life — or, at least, the spectrum of life that I wanted to learn about — and sharing it with the public. And so I became a science writer (albeit with career prospects arguably even worse than those of a scientist), and when the time was right I founded this blog dedicated to natural history and biodiversity.

There are other reasons I did not become a professor, but the lack of ability to be a natural history generalist was one of them. In another age, in another time (and assuming I’d been born a man), I might perhaps become a professor of natural history, a generalist who taught students biology and natural history, perhaps specialized in one or two extremely large groups of organisms (plants, fungi, etc.), wrote popular articles for the public, and wrote scientific papers about this or that interesting thing I’d noticed in the field. But by my time, those days had gone. That was no longer an option. And the reason for that is another story.

The Unfashionable Science

Just what is natural history? One thing that has not helped it, perhaps, is that name. The term is beautiful but also old-fashioned and a bit puzzling. I know what nature is. I know what history is. So is natural history the story of life on Earth? That’s part of it, but the term is meant more broadly. When the phrase was coined, history meant something more like “description”, according to mammologist David Schmidly, and so you could view natural history as a description of nature, and naturalists those who describe it, ask questions about the creatures’ origin, evolution, behavior, anatomy and relationships using science. Vague “ecology” and unwieldy “organismal biology” encompass much the same thing, but lack the romance of the older term. Naturalists are interested in organisms and groups of organisms for their own sake, and not just what those organisms can tell them about higher order processes like DNA replication or genetic drift. Rather, they are more interested in what higher order theories and processes can tell them about their organism.

Aristotle was the first practitioner of this science that we know of, and some of his observations on sea creatures betray a skill for detailed observation and deduction that remains impressive today. Natural history did not flourish, however, until the 18th and 19th centuries, when Linnaeus, Darwin, and even U.S. Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt were avid and avowed naturalists. It was a time when basic knowledge of local plants and animals was considered part of a good education — and of being a good citizen (although it should be said the fad for natural history led to some unfortunate over-collecting and braggadocio as well).

The enthusiasm encompassed schoolchildren as well. Anna Botsford Comstock, who attended and taught at my own alma mater Cornell, published a textbook in 1911 for elementary students and teachers called Handbook of Nature-Study which exploded in popular sales. Between 1890 and 1940 texts such as hers were an essential part of classrooms across America. The aim was to train teachers and facilitate direct contact between children and living organisms in order to create an “essential nature literacy“, as Robert Michael Pyle described it in Orion in 2000.

1912 poster advertising a natural history lecture. Public Domain. Click for source.

Naturalists, too, commanded respect at universities, and taught many field classes and courses dedicated to identifying and understanding the life histories and evolutionary relationships of particular groups of organisms: flowering plants, mosses, lichens, mammals, fungi, insects, invertebrates, birds, insects, fossils, birds, and so on — a host of tangible living things to which people could directly relate.

After World War II, everything changed. Pyle attributes the subsequent decline in natural history to the ascendency of the hard sciences in the era of the atom bomb and Sputnik, and to the large-scale desertion of the farm (and its surrounding forests, bogs, and streams) for the nature-impoverished city and suburbs. The fundamental and accelerating problem is the increasing distance between people — particularly biologists and children — and nature.

That most professional biologists should know so little about life outside their labs is rather shocking, when you think about it. But this process began in the 20th century. At universities, process began to trump product, and what was once an esteemed part of biology evolved into a dusty, fusty relict. The pendulum swung away from outdoor field studies toward indoors laboratory research on fundamental processes. Scientists who studied underlying processes of biology — evolution, cell biology, biochemistry, etc., — got bigger grants and better publications than those who studied the organisms themselves. Funding and grants for natural history evaporated, and with them, tenured faculty positions. Pyle recalls his own college experience: “The only young naturalist on the faculty, shortly after receiving the outstanding teaching award for his magnificent classes in field natural history, was denied tenure; the department wanted superstar lab candidates who published frequently in all the right journals. A few profs interested in complete organisms survived by being strong on theory.”

Experimental biology became too complex for generalists to succeed as scientists, while big bucks for biomedical research and genetics lured biologists from the field to the lab and pushed the focus away from complete organisms and onto cells, DNA and genes found in colorless liquids inside clear Eppendorf tubes.

“Academic naturalists” thus found themselves selected against in the cruel Darwinian tenure competition. The -ology classes they taught and their associated field trips vanished. The Departments of Zoology, Botany, etc. were replaced with Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, or Molecular and Cell Biology, or Genetics. Many universities got rid of their specimen collections, which are not only vital to studying evolution, but also, we now know, understanding and documenting global warming and climate change. Some were sent to join other collections; others were sent to the landfill.

You can see this in the graph on the left, below, from the same BioScience paper mentioned at the top of this post.

Fig. 4 a and b from Tewksbury et al., 2014. Click image for source.

In the 1980s, more than 30 herbaria — repositories of plant and fungal specimens — were added per year. Now that number is fewer than two per year. The authors comment that the numbers are similar for similar repositories of other kinds of life. The disappearance of specimen collections makes it harder to engage local communities and submit local specimens, although it can make accessing specimens easier for biologists (everyone loves one-stop shopping).

Another consequence is that the proportion of biology PhDs with degrees in natural history-related fields has slipped steadily for 50 years, as you can see from the graph on the right (b). The unmarked line represents all biology PhD.s, the line with the solid black dot is natural-history related disciplines. Microbiology and molecular biology are the squares, biophysics and neurology the triangles, and genetics is the gray circles. As David Wilcove and Thomas Eisner (my old professor and an esteemed naturalist-entomologist-chemical ecologist) wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2000, “A knowledge of, or even an avowed interest in, natural history is no longer a prerequisite for admission to a graduate program in ecology or any other branch of biology.”

Further, exposure of students at all levels to natural history is diminishing. As we saw in the graph at the top of this post, all colleges and universities surveyed in the 1950s required at least some natural history courses for a biology degree – a median of 2.25. Today, most colleges have no natural history requirements for a biology degree, and the slim section devoted to natural history in the center of most textbooks has shrunk 40 percent and is usually skipped anyway, as I’m sure those of you with biology degrees earned in the last 20 years can attest.

As the classes vanished, so did the natural history training. Field trips and field classes disappeared, and without them, “these subjects are dead and the students who study them risk coming away with little but cold abstractions,” wrote biologist Reed Noss in a paper mourning the demise of natural history in 1996. Most biology students no longer learned to identify species, and few learned about taxonomy or systematics, much less about the diversity of life within particular groups. The vast majority would work only with a few species in their studies, “becoming specialists before they are generalists,” wrote mammalogist Michael Mares in 2002. “They are sublimely ignorant of the diversity and complexity of nature.”

The ultimate consequence was that jobs for systematists and taxonomists likewise vaporized; observing and describing became passé; “natural history” and “naturalist” perjorative. Lab research brought “prestige, glamour, and grant money — especially grant money”, Pyle says. Natural history brought quiet ridicule, or at least condescension — so much so that many young scientists would not even suggest they might be interested in organisms for their own sake. “All of us have met and heard students who, in explaining their work on some aspect of the biology of mammals, birds, or insects, say that they are not interested in mammals, birds, or insects as such but, instead, as models for studying principles,” wrote David Schmidley in a 2005 commentary. “They do not view themselves as mammalogists or herpetologists but as ecologists or evolutionary biologists — as if being a mammalogist were a badge of shame.”

A Picture of a Slug Is Not a Slug

Popular Natural History by Henry Scherren, Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, 1906. Public Domain. Click for source.

Anna Botsford Comstock reported that teachers even in her day lacked natural history training. But today, even if a child is lucky enough to get a teacher who has a biology degree, as we just saw, that is now no guarantee the teacher will know anything about nature or natural history. As we saw above, natural history is by and large no longer taught to biology majors, much less high school students.

Comstock’s book stressed the importance of kid-on-critter time. But increasingly, in the classrooms and museum exhibits that I’ve seen or visited, still images or interactive games are considered adequate substitutes. They are not.

A better approach, one that Wilcove and Eisner suggest, is introducing kids to an older form of technology: microscopes. Even a simple stereo or dissecting microscope offers access to a fascinating universe of mites, springtails, and nematodes easily viewable in a bit of compost or soil, they say, and is a far more engaging experience than mindlessly flipping through photos in an exhibit or randomly pushing buttons.

Judging by a recent article in The Atlantic and by Richard Louv’s 2008 book Last Child in the Woods, my wandering outside alone at a tender age was a common childhood experience a generation ago, but it has virtually disappeared today. Some parents never seem to let their kids out of their sight no matter how old they get — they are constantly supervised and never allowed time to explore on their own.

Public schools are often no longer located close to nature, and field trips here too have gone the way of the dodo thanks to cost-cutting and liability, and over-supervised kids with helicopter parents and electronic babysitters rarely venture outside alone (even if they want to) to explore what nature is left in their suburban-sprawled backyard.

In schools, “environmental education” has often replaced natural history, with its emphasis on general structures and concepts like food webs or trophic levels. But such vague ideas are often boring and abstract. It would be hard to think of a kid or a biologist with a passionate devotion to a food web, but how many can you think of with a passion for a particular bird or dinosaur? But this kind of education — and lack of exposure to life in the field — produces kids for whom “every evergreen is a pine; all brown birds are sparrows; and if a spring chorus is to be heard at all, a frog is a frog is a frog,” as Pyle writes. Actually, I bet you’d be hard pressed to find a kid today who knows sparrows are brown — and many would not know it was a bird.

On a recent fishing trip to southeast Oklahoma, our guide related that he’d had a client who wanted to know what all the trees on the hill were that still had their leaves on in winter. In shock, my guide realized this man had no idea what a pine tree was. When the guide discovered the man worked in real estate, his interest was piqued. How could a real estate agent not know what a pine tree is? One that works in *commercial* real estate, apparently. On my old blog, I related the experience I had right out of college when I worked in a plant nursery and a man came in looking for an ostrich fern. As I sorted through the five or six fern species we had, he remarked “I never knew there were so many kinds of fern!” There are 10,000 species of fern.

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. “Ecological ignorance breeds indifference,” as Pyle put it. “What we know, we may choose to care for. What we fail to recognize, we certainly won’t.” Few reactions to climate change irritate me more than the “disposable Earth” attitude — surprisingly common among young adults — that if we ruin Earth (for our uses, at least), no biggie. We can just go terraform Mars or something (Not an exaggeration of this attitude. See prime example here, but I have heard it elsewhere too).

To that, I just want to shout “Are you insane??! Even if that were technically possible, have you seen what a good thing we’ve got going here? Have you SEEN Mars?” And I think a large part of this attitude stems from the fact many people — especially young people — have NOT seen what we’ve got going here. They haven’t spent hours in the woods quietly rambling around, listening, smelling, tasting, and observing. They swum above a coral reef. They haven’t experienced the grandeur of open grassland. They haven’t walked through a fog-filled forest and seen the lichens and algae glow. They haven’t seen the beauty of the desert in bloom. They haven’t even looked at the magic in a drop of wild pond water under a microscope. Because guess who else hasn’t done that yet? Me. And I even own a microscope.

To love Earth, you have to fall in love with Earth. And that can’t happen indoors, eyes glued to a screen. You have to watch the bee gathering nectar from the blue bonnet; you have to smell and touch the sap (and discover it is now impossible to remove from your fingers) weeping from the tree; you have to smell the citrussy cinnamonny gym-socky aroma of the matsutake fresh from the pine duff.

What on Earth would possess anyone to suggest that it would be nothing to simply throw this all away and start again on a red, lifeless rock? Perhaps a childhood drained of natural history experience or education.

How Natural History and Sari Cloth Can Thwart Cholera

But natural history loss and apathy isn’t just bad for academic naturalists and kids. In the same BioScience paper that produced the graphs in this post, lead author Joshua Tewksbury and colleagues point out that it can be bad — and extremely costly — for humanity in some very practical ways.

The waterborne illness cholera has killed millions over the centuries, famously killing some travelers on the Oregon Trail within hours of the first symptoms. What was not recognized or thought to be investigated until early 1990s was what cholera was up to in the environment when it wasn’t killing humans. Cholera doesn’t exist to afflict humans. It is a wild creature — a bacterium called Vibrio cholerae — which its own fascinating life history in nature. As it turns out cholera bacteria are actually native to the sea and commonly attach themselves to copepods and other zooplankton. Using this bit of natural history, scientists can now forecast cholera outbreaks in India using satellite images of phytoplankton blooms in the Indian Ocean.

What’s more, it also led to the insight that filtering untreated water meant for drinking with tightly woven sari cloth vastly decreases the chances of getting cholera by removing the zooplankton that most of them are attached to, a very practical intervention that women in impoverished Indian households eager to improve their family’s health can take.

Washing Utensils And Vegetables.png
Washing Utensils And Vegetables” by Anwar Huq, University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, Baltimore, Maryland, United States. The woman on the right is fitting a sari cloth filter to a water collecting jar. From Bradbury J: Beyond the Fire-Hazard Mentality of Medicine: The Ecology of Infectious Diseases. PLoS Biol 1/2/2003: e22. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes our ignorance of natural history has caused us to directly act in ways that result in costly, difficult-to-undo mistakes. In the Pacific Northwest, 20th century water managers removed large logs and stumps from rivers to improve navigability and to “assist salmon migration”. It was only after hundreds of streams were so cleared that officials realized that salmon actually *need* such large woody debris during their migration. Now we must spend millions to undo our damaging handiwork, sometimes going so far as to airlift logs into streams.

Perhaps the biggest and most costly natural-history related blunder of all in the United States was the policy of suppressing forest fire in the western United States. It was concocted based on strategies that worked well for wet forests in Germany and the eastern United States. But little thought was given to the natural history of dry western forests and how they might differ in their relationship to fire. As Native Americans had long known, western forests thrive on frequent small fires.

Now, 100 years of fire suppression in the west has led to over-dense forests susceptible to intense mega-blazes covering hundreds of square miles. As a result of our ignorance and arrogance, the US fire management program now costs more than $1 billion annually, and we must carefully coddle endangered species made so by the long fire drought.

What Can We Do?

There are three points I feel are important to make when considering the future of natural history.

  1. Natural history is an important science worthy of respect and research dollars. The scientific method and natural history are not mutually exclusive. Wilcove and Eisner believe that the abandonment of natural history by universities will prove to be one of the biggest scientific mistakes of our time.
  2. Just because biology moved on did not mean the work of natural history was over. Much still remains to do. It’s honorable work and should be exciting — the work of the Age of Discovery. Many scientists assume that all the important descriptive work has been done during that Age, but in reality, many species and groups of organisms were neglected during the 18th and 19th century, and those that were may have been described poorly or incorrectly. New biology graduate students have tended to enter popular fields without checking to see whether old fields needed further work. Many have been pushed into work on a handful of model organisms while work on other species and groups has languished. We have probably even lost ground in the last 50 years. When scientists from the previous era specializing in certain groups of organisms have died, so too has a tremendous amount of hard-earned institutional knowledge of particular groups. As a result of all these forces, even supposedly well-studied groups of animals (like jellyfish, as biologist Lisa-Anne Gershwin discussed with SA blogger Bec Crew) still have surprising gaps in our basic knowledge of their diversity. For more obscure groups, God only knows what’s out there. We don’t.
  3. Natural history education — and simply looking, observing and exploring nature — are the birthright of all children and biologists. Failing to teach natural history and spend time in nature has serious practical consequences for individuals and for society.

So what can we do? The natural history and biodiversity gap is a major reason I started this blog five years ago to spotlight groups of organisms and aspects of natural history that I found fascinating but felt no one else wrote about. But my blog is a drop in the ocean.

I’ve had other ideas — perhaps we could have microscope parties (safaris?) the way astronomers so effectively use star parties to lure the science curious public to their discipline. Or maybe Botany Cocktail Night. Or an Invertebrate Sushi Party (is that too disgusting?) The bounty of good field guides available today could be the inspiration for some other game or competitive activity (perhaps combined with exercise in some sort of competitive natural history photographic scavenger hunts?) that could teach people how to use them and instill a lifelong curiosity about nature. Perhaps 19th-century style Botany Walks will never again but popular, but if so, we need to find ways to connect people and real, live organisms in socially-inviting, engaging ways.

Schmidley suggests some good could come of ceasing to think of “naturalist” and “scientist” as mutually exclusive, “the supposition that one must be either an old-fashioned “-ologist” or a builder of conceptual frameworks, but not both”. He suggests an alternative — “the scientific naturalist.” “a person with a deep and broad familiarity with one or more groups of organisms or ecological communities, who can draw on his or her knowledge of systematics, distribution, life histories, behavior, and perhaps physiology and morphology to inspire ideas, evaluate hypotheses, and intelligently design research with an awareness of organisms’ special peculiarities.” I have known a scientist or two like this, but we need more.

Maybe non-profit conservation or natural history organizations could endow chairs for “scientific naturalists” in biology departments with the stipulation that these positions go to those who study specific, understudied groups of organisms. Or perhaps they could create grants for work on understudied groups of organisms to inspire and fund all biologists who might not have otherwise have considered (or been able to consider) natural history a part of their research but would like to include it as part of their research portfolio. If anyone at NSF (or foreign equivalents) is reading this, I know you guys are scraping the bottom of the barrel right now with regard to research dollars, but could you spare a little more funding love for natural history work if and when your cup ever refills?

Service intern Byron Hamstead helps identify stream insects (8026518273).jpgService intern Byron Hamstead helps identify stream insects (8026518273)” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast RegionService intern Byron Hamstead helps identify stream insects
Uploaded by AlbertHerring. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I write this to everyone reading, but especially to my core audience of natural history lovers: it is up to us. Ask yourself: how can I share my passion for natural history with others? Who in my community is already doing this kind of thing?  Could I teach a class through a college or local nature association? Give a public talk or talks? Take a class to further my education? Host a regular natural history salon/party in my house à la Ben Franklin and the Enlightenment scientists? Perhaps we could collectively relax a bit and let our children have more unstructured and unsupervised playtime in nature — often the very same kind of wild free play we ourselves were afforded?

How could I get science curious friends who aren’t already passionate about biology interested? Take my kids out for a nature walk — and grab a few neighborhood kids while I’m at it? Get involved in volunteer outreach at my local natural history museum? Find the time to take *myself* for a walk in nature, field guide, magnifying glass, and binoculars in hand? I feel screen suck too … but put down the phone and go outside.

If I’m a public school teacher, how can I incorporate more natural history — and especially field trips and kid-on-critter (and not just vertebrates) time — into my curriculum? If I’m a university faculty member, how can I increase or encourage the increase the teaching of natural history and field science and its requirement for a biology degree at my institution? Noss suggests that faculty and students donate time to schools parks, or other public agencies to help develop or improve educational programs in local natural history, and that lab or office-bound scientists get back out into the field themselves and make the effort to learn the organisms that live in their own backyards.

I know there are countless obstacles to all these ideas. But think about it.

A Final Plea for the Dignity of Natural History

In saying all this, I don’t mean to impugn the role of theory and process, cell biology and genetics. Theory and process are essential. Biology hinges on evolutionary theory; it helps us understand everything we see. Natural history without appreciation of fundamental biology principles is simply an assortment of interesting facts. But theory and process are not, and cannot be everything.

Ernest Rutherford famously said “all science is either physics or stamp collecting”. No science has perhaps been a bigger victim of this attitude than natural history. But is it a waste of time to visit and appreciate the paintings in the art museum? Is it stamp collecting to study and research the works of Vermeer, or Las Meninas?

How then can we have any less respect for the appreciation and study of natural works of art? We must have balance in biology between studying the process and the fascinating, oft-unexpected, and delightful products of those processes.

“A naturalist is the person who is inexhaustibly fascinated by biological diversity and who does not view organisms merely as models, or vehicles for theory, but rather as the thing itself that excites our admiration and our desire for knowledge, understanding, and preservation,” writes David Schmidley. That is who I am. And I’m sure I’m not alone. But natural history will dwindle — and humanity will suffer accordingly — unless society prioritizes natural history research and education, and we who feel this way share our passion with others.


“The current push to connect every classroom in America to the Internet demonstrates how quickly elected leaders and the public can be galvanized to address what is rightly perceived to be a critical educational need. Meanwhile, the demise of natural history goes unnoticed, increasing the likelihood that future generations of schoolchildren will spend even more time indoors, clicking away on their plastic mice, happily viewing images of the very plants and animals they could be finding in the woods, streams, and meadows they no longer visit.” — David Wilcove and Thomas Eisner, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2000

“Scientific abstractions and fancy technologies are no substitutes for the wisdom that springs from knowing the world and its creatures in intimate, loving detail. We owe it to ourselves and our students to keep opportunities for acquiring this kind of knowledge alive.” — Reed Noss, Conservation Biology, 2001

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the paper by Tewksbury et al. was published in Current Biology. It was published in BioScience, and this post has been corrected accordingly.

References and Sources

Mares, M.A. 2002. A Desert Calling: Life in a Forbidding Landscape. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Noss, R.F. 1996. The Naturalists Are Dying Off, Conservation Biology 10: 1-3.

Pyle, R.M. 2001. The Rise and Fall of Natural History. Orion, Autumn 2001: 16-23.

Schmidley, D.J. 2005. What It Means To Be a Naturalist and the Future of Natural History at American Universities, Journal of Mammology 86: 449-456.

Tewksbury J.J., Anderson J.G.T., Bakker J.D., Billo T.J., Dunwiddie P.W., Groom M.J., Hampton S.E., Herman S.G., Levey D.J., Machnicki N.J., Martinez del Rio, C., Power, M.E., Rowell, K., Salomon, A.K., Stacey, L., Trombulak, S.C., & Wheeler, T.A. 2014. Natural History’s Place in Science and Society, BioScience, DOI:

Wilcove, D.S. and Eisner, T. 2000. The Impending Extinction of Natural History, Chronicle of Higher Education 47: B24.

The Courage to Live It Workshop begins late afternoon on August 24, 20104 and ends mid-day on August 27. A detailed schedule will be posted here ahead of time. Final program will be built around input from attendees.
Jennifer Frazer About the Author: Jennifer Frazer is a AAAS Science Journalism Award-winning science writer. She has degrees in biology, plant pathology/mycology, and science writing, and has spent many happy hours studying life in situ. Follow on Twitter @JenniferFrazer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ANaturalistandGeneralist 1:41 am 06/21/2014

    Great article!

    Many thoughts on the subject – on one level the epistemological, and another more visceral.

    There is a fundamental dichotomy in (human) intelligence in that we must extrapolate the specific from generalizations, while we form generalizations from specifics. There is a fundamental balance here without which we do not function. I think the analogy holds; for example, the evolutionary theorist must build a specific testable hypothesis from (and applied to) generalized naturalistic observations, and the naturalist must consider the implications of general evolutionary theories to understand the context of what is observed, and to know where and what to look for. This balance has enabled advances in theory and resulted in significant observations that otherwise would not have been possible. (This is basically restating your position that the field as it presently stands is out of balance, and broken.)

    On the other side, from observation, some analysis, and a bit of emotion, I suspect we have a confluence of various factors with a dose of ‘entitlement culture’ and intellectual elitism, and of course snobbery is most effective within ones own caste, and thus taxonomy ceases to be the careful, deliberate, and scientific documentation of relevant characteristics without which the fields of molecular and evolutionary biology would have no grounds of proof, but instead turns into the diminutive collecting of stamps.

    On the third hand, it appears in a real sense natural science is the victim of rapid technological advance. Having the computational power to analyze molecular data (among other things, but fundamentally this) has created the impression that since this area is generating more results, it is more important. I think it’s necessary to emphasize that this is the result of a confluence of theoretical and technological advances rather than from some innate character of the science.

    Thank you for an enjoyable and necessary article!

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  2. 2. Sean McCann 10:46 am 06/21/2014

    Thanks for this great article! I fully agree on the vital role of natural history in education. Our science is out of balance, and we risk so much by our loss of truly knowledgeable experts. I think we like to pretend that written communication such as texts and articles are all we need for keeping knowledge alive, but there is a vital role for the student-mentor relationship for conveying understanding. When we lose experts on natural history with no one to replace them, those traditions and knowledge will wither away.
    I will try to, when I get more settled, do some natural history outreach for children…Growing up, one of the best experiences I had was a day camp where we could take courses on snakes or pond life, and spend big blocks of the day just learning about these things. I think it played a vital role in encouraging me to take up the study of biology.

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  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:30 am 06/23/2014

    Great article!

    For a start, conservation-minded approach should be relaxed to let children interact with nature more closely.

    Reading biographies of famous biologists, most of them caught local animals like frogs and lizards when they were children. Now this is discouraged or forbidden by law. Few lizards are saved from neglect, thousands times more lizards die because too few people are interested in saving them.

    Most national parks and reserves come with a huge ‘forbidden’ list, which practically prevents real exploration. Visitors can see a pre-prepared list of sights, but not really explore for themselves.

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  4. 4. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:31 am 06/23/2014

    PS. Sorry for typos :)

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  5. 5. Naskrecki 8:29 am 06/23/2014

    A great post. My biggest fear as a biologist and a natural historian (” a scientific naturalist”) is that the future generations of biologists will simply lose the ability to ask interesting and unorthodox biological questions, focusing instead on purely mechanistic (mostly molecular) or meta-process problems. To me it is akin to studying only the chemistry of paints and the building architecture in the Louvre, and neglecting the paintings altogether.

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  6. 6. amdurso 12:50 pm 06/23/2014

    Great article, in general I couldn’t agree more. You echo exactly how I feel about my career prospects in biology. On the other hand, as you acknowledge, we have learned a lot from “cells, DNA and genes found in colorless liquids inside clear Eppendorf tubes”, and I think that these things have a place in biology as well (I just don’t particularly relish working with them). Computing is a blessing and a curse – our ability to collect, manipulate, and analyze natural history data is better than ever, and this I think has great potential to transform “assortments of interesting facts” into information about ecological patterns that we could previously only dream about (I’m thinking of projects like eBird). The outlook for NH does look bleak, but I plan to continue doing a lot of the things the author suggests: volunteering to do outreach programs, staying involved in conservation organizations like the Audubon & Herp societies, taking kids outside, getting outdoors myself, and generally trying not to get too down about it. Whenever I do, I usually go outside and that cheers me right up.

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  7. 7. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 1:13 pm 06/23/2014

    Thanks to everyone who has commented so far! It is great to hear your perspectives and that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

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  8. 8. Fezook 2:21 pm 06/23/2014

    I would argue that necessity has made natural history less prevalent in college biology courses. Over the last century, bioscience has become more like engineering, a problem-based discipline. And students are supposed to bring to the classroom increasingly complex understanding to better learn new problem solving, e.g., calculus for engineering; a sound understanding of evoution and the natural world for biology. Outside of Zoology, Botany and Ecology Natural History has shifted out of the University and into scondary education. Engineers can’t focus much of their time on fine architecture, though that’s what they may help build, nor can biologists focus much of their time on studying the natural world without a view towards probem-solving, though that’s what they may ultimately help sustain. Another analogy would be in medicine. Pediatricians don’t study healthy, playful children, though that would be a lot more fun – and possibly informative – than dealing with runny noses and vaccine-averse Moms all day. In 1961 Ernst Mayr, also addressing a shift change in biology research and education, coined the notion of two biologies, one functional biology, questions of “how”, what all biologists do, studying how cells and organisms work, and the other, questions of “why”, having to do with evoutionary change and biodiversity. All biologists need to think ‘why’ cells and organisms do what they do, but they go to school to learn ‘how’ to understand that.

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  9. 9. mcshaffd 3:35 pm 06/23/2014

    Great article! I work with the Ohio Biological Survey, and we have noticed many of the trends that you have outlined. I do want to say, however, that all is not lost. 3 areas are encouraging: 1. Some small liberal arts colleges are bucking the trend. My own department at Marietta College has not one but 2 entomologists on staff, and all of our faculty members do at least part of their work on whole organisms or ecosystems. Students must complete an “animal” a “plant” and an “integrative” course to major in biology; many take zoology, which is taught at our field station, for their animal course and all take either lower or higher plants (both field based) for their botany course. More and more, colleagues with an interest in natural history are at these small schools and not at the big research universities. Second, there is the upswing in “citizen-scientists” coming to natural history, largely organized through social media and the web. Birders are branching out to other groups, and many of these self-taught naturalists are quite good. A group like this organized “Mothapalooza” in Ohio last year and got well over 100 participants; this year’s event is sold out. Last, I should point out the efforts of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (largely led by Jim Bissell) to buy (or get donated) critical habitats and then incorporate them into their outreach programs with excellent field trips and other events.

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  10. 10. Michael M 5:28 pm 06/23/2014

    In the meantime:

    1. preschool instructors and parents need to prepare themselves with some basic botany and zoology (perhaps including a little entomology, ornithology, find field guides for plants, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals of their region – keep this library together for everyone’s reference),
    and then both participate with and release children of that age to exploring areas as simple as backyards. Asking for a child’s discovery in these areas is not out of line. The astonishing knowledge of traditional indigenous peoples begins with much freedom and naming of every organism visible, and that should be the platform upon which understanding of biology and relationships are formed. This early focus is vital. Children are strongly responsive to adult teaching until about 4th to 5th grade, and their natural inquisitive nature can be enhanced.

    2. Rewarding vacations take place in wild, natural environments. It is somewhat cheaper than the ridiculous mechanical Disney-type places. (I personally do NOT recommend Seaworlds and such, as they are NOT reflective of the world, but only of human enslavement of animals , and incarceration for demonstration of a failure to respect other life, and a lifetime in field biology requires that we study their behavior with as little intrusion as possible, avoiding artificial environments.)
    If necessary, find a relative who is intimate with nature, and include them, or better, allow separate vacations with those relatives, for stronger role modeling.

    I have spoken in the past with teenagers, and in some cases, found that they are getting inaccurate information from their biology and other teachers about pursuing their passions:
    One girl wanted to study right whales, and her instructor told her that she should not choose that, as the discipline was too full. Of course, over the next several years, young bilogists discovered new information, such as on their astonishing ages. The area of study, in short, is understaffed.

    Here, an area with the greatest conifer diversity on earth, and with a number of plants indigenous only to about 2 sq. miles in some cases, it appears that only one school with one teacher developed a program for field trips for two to three grades to study those plants when in flower.
    Summer in the mountains is a good time to explore local ecosystems, as there it is spring and flowering season. Field guides to tracks of animals are available, and because natural history is a broad subject, packing every relevant field guide is of value.
    Every backpack trip should have a shared copy of useful guides.

    I understand that the TV station “animal Planet” has moved away from natural history into bogus “reality” tv, and when checking it, I have found that the shows are now quasi-horror and human exploitation of nature. Some concerted effort is needed to recreate the type of medium which focuses on biosphere, atmosphere, and tying together basic physics and chemistry with biological observation.

    Those disturbed by the loss of observational science on earth, might themselves further explore the disciplines related to rekindling their focus. I have discovered that my background in psychology and anthropology allows me to observe animals with greater dimensionality. I become more astonished by the play of ravens on the wind, by the communications of animals of all kinds (this also requires familiarity with biochemistry, neuroscience, and ecology in several of its disciplines, but is endlessly and increasingly rewarding.
    Some interests like climbing, ocean activities (NOT motorized), and even athletic disciplines, assist everyone in mor comfortably exploring the living environment.

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  11. 11. wjohnfaust 5:52 pm 06/23/2014

    My guess is that one of our most respected biologists (and writers), E. O. Wilson, would also lament the loss of natural history.

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  12. 12. ShannonO 3:24 am 06/25/2014

    Hello Jennifer,

    I always enjoy your articles. I thought you might like to hear that I am also a former student of Tom’s (he was my PhD advisor), and am so passionate about this issue you raise that I have just started my own group ( at a wonderful place called the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India. NCBS and the faculty here are very passionate about inspiring naturalists and chemical ecologists. Also, India is teeming with incredible biodiversity and one can be a naturalist year-round here. With them, I hope to push the idea of naturalist-inspired biology, as Tom and my other mentors taught me. I am just getting started, but thought you might like to know that we are here :) – Shannon Olsson

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  13. 13. kmueda 1:21 am 06/26/2014

    Great article, on a subject near to my heart. Couple points:

    1) Do you know of any studies that try to quantitatively determine a decline in natural history? Tewksbury cites Pergams 2007 and Balmford 2009, both of which are now on my reading list, but do you have any favorites? I live in the weird bubble that is the SF Bay Area so I feel like naturalists are everywhere, though I still feel sad that more people can’t name their local birds, let alone any plants / bugs / mushrooms / etc.

    2) What’s your take on digital natural history efforts, like eBird, or my own website, iNaturalist, and others like it (Project Noah, iSpot, Observado, BugGuide, Mushroom Observer, etc.)? I think they all demonstrate that natural history and technology aren’t antithetical, and that you can pick *up* your phone and go outside to learn about nature, or learn a lot about nature online while goofing off at work I mean responsibly using the internet in your free time. I suppose you could also look on them as digital distractions and sad attempts to drag people outside by their phones, though. Thoughts?

    3) You should read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars series for a view on how extra-planetary migration and natural history could go hand in hand. I totally agree that the “leave Earth” argument is an absurd answer to our environmental problems, but the books wonderfully explore how our connection to landscapes and to ecosystems might evolve on another planet.

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  14. 14. Native Son 11:59 am 06/26/2014

    Nature is dangerous, fragile, remote, and belongs to experts who would just as soon keep it to themselves. Perhaps ironically, that is the message modern preservationists are sending to the US public. David Wilcove and E.O. Wilson, both cast above in a positive light, have been leaders in disparaging the close-in, close-up nature accessible to most of us—the nature of yards, city parks, vacant lots, old fields and roadsides composed in large part of introduced species. They encourage us to despair for the nature that was, to despise the nature that is, and to consider ourselves contaminants rather than participants.

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  15. 15. davidonewell 6:26 pm 06/27/2014

    Really great article. The matter is seen, here, as a subset of the overarching reality that there are far too many humans on Earth, with “everything else” being crowded out.

    Eventually, we will all be determined environmentalists, and students of Nature, as the illusion of separation from the Earth is discarded.

    When I was a child, and the CO2 level was over 100 PPM lower, I killed, ignorantly, many lizards. The population of the Earth was ~2.5B: and we did not know what trouble we were getting into.

    Now it is clear that we must change or die. How this will be effected: or if it will be: well, it will be interesting.

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  16. 16. 16rpark18 9:42 pm 06/27/2014

    …sad how profit motive has perversely skewed study about the fundamentally important biological crossroad between the macro and the micro– I think that all biological manifestations (amoeba to human) represent a pivotal and universal type of consciousness that looks out with natures eyes upon itself, pondering and recursively learning about self, with continuous feedback that informs the rest of consciousness about itself. For more detail about the Holofractal Graphic universe, see link below to a lecture by physicist Nassim Haramein:

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  17. 17. JoseD 6:51 pm 06/28/2014

    @Jennifer Frazer

    1stly, I wanted to let you know that I happened upon this article by accident, but liked it very much (especially the parts about your story & the definition/history of natural history). I’ve always loved natural history in general/dinos in particular & I’ve always wanted to work at a natural history institution (either a zoo or a dino museum). However, going into college, I realized that I could never be a scientist (I can’t do field work & I can’t write papers). That’s when I got into Natural History Interpretation (which makes sense in retrospect, given how much I’ve always enjoyed sharing my aforementioned love w/others). My interpretive training has also helped me become better at selling stuff, so now I have 2 career options (either as an Interpreter or as a Gift Shop Guy, although I’ll still do the former on a volunteer basis at least).

    2ndly, I know what you mean about “the abandonment of natural history by universities”: When I was a freshman at SUNY-ESF, I took a Botany class/lab in the fall & a Zoology class/lab in the spring; Said classes/labs have since been replaced w/Biology I & II, respectively; Also, what used to be “Natural History and Interpretation” back when I majored in it is now “Environmental Education and Interpretation”. However, I’m optimistic that natural history will never die out completely, not as long as bird watching & dino paleontology are popular among the general public. In reference to the latter, you have to be a good naturalist to be a good paleontologist (To quote Gardom/Milner, “Studying dinosaurs requires an extraordinary range of skills. A good palaeontologist must combine the qualities of an explorer, an archaeologist, a detective and an artist as well as having a detailed knowledge of animal structure and function”: ). Scott Sampson ( ) is an especially good example of that. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading his “Dinosaur Odyssey” book (The epilogue is especially relevant: ) & his “The Whirlpool of Life” blog ( ).

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  18. 18. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 7:07 pm 06/29/2014

    mcshaffd — Thanks so much. All of that is great to hear!
    Shannon — Again, wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing.
    kmueda — 1.I do not. But I bet if you emailed the corresponding author of Tewksbury et al they would. 2.As for digital natural history, I don’t have enough experience with it to have formed an opinion. I did visit a few of those websites in preparing to write my post. My hastily-formed feeling is that they are still pretty superficial and selectively focused on the interests of the few contributors so far. Also, I worry about the potential for diversion and distraction of having the internet with you in the wild — even if you don’t intend to get distracted, it happens. That opinion may be wildly off-base. I still think taking the time to learn and identify species by learning from local experts person to person who can point out the salient features, or through studying tangible paper field guides where you can flip around easily and study related groups — plus use the visual landmarks inherent to paper books as a memory aid — is the way to go. On the other hand, an iPhone weighs *a lot* less in your pack than the 1,000 page field guide. : )

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  19. 19. JoseD 10:15 am 06/30/2014

    Don’t forget about Comment #17 (in reference to #18). ;)

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  20. 20. dlhoyt 9:46 pm 07/2/2014

    Like you I began with a love for biology. With little guidance, a public library, supportive parents,Comstock’s Nature Handbook and a nearby patch of woods I learned a lot about insects, snakes and lizards. I finally earned my degree and began teaching at the college level in the late ’60s. There I found that only a few students shared my love for living organisms. One of my advisees even changed to a chemistry major because he hated the thought of having to take a systematic botany course. Students have always resisted the memorization that is required to learn to identify and recognize living organisms. Only those few with a love for the living world are motivated enough to do so. But we could be doing more to reach those few and encourage them. This is the role of local nature centers like the one my wife volunteers at. Many of the children she takes on trail walks have never been in the woods before and we don’t live in an highly urban area. It’s the parents that need to be reached, even if they don’t realize it.

    The neglect of natural history at the college level is certainly real but sometimes it survives in different guises. Departments of ecology and evolutionary biology usually are populated with field biologists. Some of the -ology course have been taken over by schools of natural resources and many of their students are ardent naturalists. The academic departments in most universities do suffer from nature deficit disorder, though.

    This was a wonderful article you wrote. I just wish that more people outside the choir would pay attention to it.

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  21. 21. grousehunter 12:44 pm 07/7/2014

    I blame these observations on three things; computers, helicopters and urbanization. These three features have successfully separated new biologists from nature and provides only a limited time for researchers to actual observe the given species that they study. This is further complicated by the fact that up and coming naturalists require specialized life skills to operated in areas where animals can be observed in their natural environments, something that a large percentage entering the field today do not have.

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  22. 22. hkraznodar 4:34 pm 07/8/2014

    @dlhoyt: “nature deficit disorder” – Thank you for naming the issue in a way modern people can understand. I am not a scientist and neither were my parents but my closely supervised children still were required to wander the natural streams, grasslands and lake shores and study what they found there. Our function as parents was to keep them away from the poisonous snake in the river, the broken glass and the rusty metal. Everything else they explored as their whims took them.

    The older son is still searching for a career choice although he is slowly drifting into being an ecology activist and talking about returning to college to complete the remaining 2.4 years needed for a bachelor’s degree.

    The younger wants a doctorate in chemistry as a generalist. It will be interesting to see how that works out. One of the projects he wants to do is a complete online map of species and their relations down to the regional adaptations level for all currently living and extinct things. He wants it to include proper scientific taxonomy and common language names in all major languages as well as characteristics, common uses or benefits of each critter or plant and all of the mythology surrounding them as well. I told him to get some good patents to market so he could fund it.

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  23. 23. PrairieEcologist 9:09 pm 08/9/2014


    There is a misconception that natural history is memorization. That is the wrong model. I am very fortunate to have a career as a naturalist. What I know has come by discovery…finding of new things and observing and describing them so that I could use keys to identify them, which has taught me morphology and taxonomy along the way. I am a field botanist with a doctorate, but I’ve never taken a class wherein I’ve memorized taxa or anatomy. Thank goodness. I might still be in the postdoc hamster wheel if I had.

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