Sunday, August 5, 2007

The End of Natural History?

Oh look, I wrote about this already. After a lengthy and somewhat melancholy conversation with a superb natural historian, I can't resist revisiting it, but I'll be brief.

We used to be naturalists. We, the people who loved squishy, furry, feathered, slimy, scaly, living things. In the immmortal words of Louis Agassiz, we studied nature, not books. We were Dr. Doolittle and Charles Darwin. We crawled in the mud and climbed trees, notebooks and pencils ever at the ready, pleading with Nature for her secrets.

Once Natural History and Science were separate endeavors.

It is no longer possible to study natural history. It is not a high school course nor a college major. There is no doctoral program in it. Instead we have Biology, which demands its place next to physics as a Real Science. Not wrongly, I hasten to add. I need not enumerate the astounding scientific advances in so many of the more recent fields of biology: molecular studies, genetics, immunology, cellular structure, and so forth. But I do lament the passing of the (perhaps less scientific and more poetic?) field of Natural History.

There are no young people who do natural history. It isn't encouraged, it isn't taught, it isn't published. In fact, it's detrimental to the modern science career. It's an oral tradition, and the information is lost as experts die or retire. And without that information--without an intimate familiarity with Nature's cast--how can we connect all our fancy computer models, cell cultures, and DNA sequences to the squishy, furry, feathered, slimy, scaly, living world?

I want to interview old Naturalists. I want to go into the field with these people, to learn their ways and absorb their knowledge. And maybe write a book. Yeah! Its title: The Natural History of Natural History.

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