Herbarium photo, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Natural history collections around the world are suffering neglect. A group of leading curators, scientists and scholars in Italy recently made a plea to protect specimens that date from the birth of the idea of natural history collections themselves. These collections are a treasure trove of discovery. It is estimated that as many as 40% of the yet to be described flowering plants on earth may already be sitting on an herbarium sheet waiting for a botanist with sufficient knowledge of a genus and family to recognize, describe, classify, and name them. What is more tragic is all the species unknown to science that have not yet been collected at all and the decline in a serious effort to do so.
The recent piece in Nature magazine makes these points but does not address the greatest threat to natural history collections: an erosion in understanding why such collections matter, not only among the public but particularly among professional biologists. There is a dangerous complacency that technology — molecular sequencing and digital imaging in particular — are and will continue to make physical specimens in museums and herbaria less relevant. This is simply false and one of the great follies of our time.
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that” — The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 1
Shakespeare’s works have endured the centuries because we continue to see ourselves in the mirror he holds up. In a time of great divisiveness and strife, it is more important than ever that we seek out our common humanity and remind ourselves that, regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation, an objective examination of the human condition reveals that we share far more in common than all that separates us. This is as true across political, geographic, national, and cultural divides, as it is across the centuries.
For those worried about global warming, coal is even less popular as a stocking stuffer this year. As we contemplate the “big” challenges facing us, it is interesting to consider what the public thinks. A recent Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research Poll, funded by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science, prioritizes 15 candidate catastrophes (click image to enlarge):
Work on Onondaga Lake, depending on definitions, interestingly encompasses the top two. If we include work on water quality in the Adirondacks and lingering impacts of acid rain, it’s a trifecta. Number four suggests that there is strong public support for a focus on forests, at least tropical ones. Emphasis on resource management makes the top six. Concerns over the use of GMOs in foods is next to last, so get those chestnuts on the fire and a happy holiday to all.
Public opinions change as fast as Syracuse weather, so putting too much weight on the views of today as guide to long term planning is to be avoided without other considerations. To explore the Yale/AP/NORC poll in detail, the report is available online:
Dear ESF Alumni, Heartfelt wishes for a joyous holiday season! I am looking forward to hosting my first campus holiday party in January at the college residence, and to my first white Christmas in several years. A saguaro wrapped with strands of tree lights just doesn’t quite do it for anyone who has spent winters in Central New York. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
What is ESF? Why should a donor interested in transforming the world choose to invest in ESF? What expectation does she have that ESF will give her a better and different return on investment? We want to provide a great education to our students. What university does not at least make the same claim? We have faculty doing fantastic research and solving problems. What research university does not? So, what is ESF’s story? Do we have a narrative to share that is different from that of any of scores of other universities? I believe that we do, and that is a central thread running through our strategic planning.
“Years of sadness followed — long years in which the study of general natural history not only languished; it all but expired. Our instructors in their enthusiasm over the all-important revelations of the microscope seemed to overlook the fact that this instrument is not the only road to knowledge — forgetting that it takes no account of the higher forms of life and fails utterly to explain the interrelations of life and environment.”
Insert “DNA” in the place of “microscope” and this might be a contemporaneous complaint by a natural historian. It is, however, part of Dr. C. Hart Merriam’s 1932 acceptance speech when awarded the Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in Natural History.
The problem is not DNA or microscopes, we need them both as well as technologies not yet conceived. The problem is that there is a tool for every job and not every job can be done with any single tool. Yet a disproportionate amount of funding is repeatedly diverted to the latest technology, swept along in a current of excitement, peer adulation, and conformity. This was true in the 1930s for the microscope, in the 1960s for the scanning electron microscope, in the 1970s for electrophoresis, and today for DNA sequencing. When you have a handsomely funded hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.
We are all stakeholders in the future of the environment. We all benefit with successes in responsible natural resource stewardship, implementing sustainable practices, and protecting the integrity of ecosystems. Conversely, we all suffer with failure. No one can escape the ugly impacts of depleted resources, degraded ecosystems, or decimation of biodiversity. Fortunately it is not too late to avoid the most widespread and devastating implications of the environmental challenges facing us today, but we must act quickly and make the right choices.
Achieving a bright, sustainable future involves a good deal more than confronting scientific, management, and engineering challenges. There must be a fundamental shift in how our society sees its relationship to the wild world and a deepened appreciation for our moral and ethical obligations to one another, the planet we inhabit, and future generations. A reexamination of our values will require leadership from scholars of diverse expertise including philosophers, ethicists, historians, and social scientists.