Déjà vous all over again

Bioblitz 2014-10“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.

As in life generally, most things are good… in moderation. As we face the great environmental challenges before us we absolutely need “all the above” in our arsenal. There is room for every valid scientific approach from DNA to ecosystem modeling to phylogenetics and everything between. Because current fashion has the spotlight on one approach and the lion’s share of money follows is not to suggest that other, radically different, approaches are not of equal value.

No thing about life on Earth is more improbable than the complexity produced by natural selection: the web of an orb-weaving spider, the balloons offered by dance flies to their mates, and the stripes of the zebra are all the products of coded DNA but none were foreordained. Natural history in all its branches, from anatomy to taxonomy and autecology, is a science of shock and awe, a tour of the unexpected and unlikely. It is a celebration of the diversity of life and the only way to reveal the amazing stories that spell out the detailed functions of the biosphere and the grandeur of evolutionary history. And it rekindles our innate biophilia that is the strongest and most important relic of our own evolutionary emergence.

Some questions can only be addressed through a carefully conceived reductionist approach. Other questions focus on emergent properties of living things that are the result of complexity and only observable at the level of organism, or above. You could never fully comprehend the detailed functions of an ecosystem by studying each species in isolation, just as you could never grasp the most interesting parts of the story of evolution by ignoring anatomy, behavior, or development. We need to respect, fund, encourage, and celebrate scientific natural history in all its branches at the same time that we rejoice in the power of the latest technologies.

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About qdwheeler

Quentin Wheeler is the 4th president of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry
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