Remembering the Stories of Nature

Just when it’s more important than ever to appreciate and understand the wonders of nature, Big Science and mainstream Academia are turning their backs on the living world. It’s time we turn this around, and embrace the lessons that natural history can teach us.

Opinion by Jonathan Foley

Our planet, and the remarkable diversity of living things it supports, is under assault.

The combined threats of climate change, deforestation, widespread pollution, over-drafted water supplies, and the ongoing sprawl of human development threaten our biosphere. By knocking out countless species and disrupting Earth’s climate and water cycle, we are unraveling entire ecosystems—dismantling networks that evolved over millions of years.

This is not a test. This is not a dress rehearsal. Many scientists think we are now experiencing the sixth “Great Extinction” event in Earth’s history. The last time an ecological event on this scale occurred was about 66 million years ago, when the dinosaurs went extinct.

There are many things we must do immediately to address this ecological crisis. But in order to begin to put our natural world back together, we need to more fully understand it. To do that, we need to understand how life functions across planet Earth—the organisms that share the planet with us, how they evolved, and how they survive and thrive, or not, in their environment. What is here now, where is it found, and in what numbers? How are plants, animals, and entire biological communities responding to habitat loss and climate change? How does this compare to our planet’s recent history?

This is the science behind natural history and why many institutions, including museums, conduct expeditions across the world’s biomes, make detailed field observations of ecological systems, and assemble collections of countless biological specimens. 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 organism’s 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.

Unbelievably, the U.S. National Science Foundation has just suspended one of the last remaining programs in this area: The “Collections in Support of Biological Research” program, with a measly $3–5 million budget, was suspended in March 2016 and will be “evaluated for the long term resource needs and research priorities.” Maybe it will come back. I hope so. But based on recent history, I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, many of the few remaining natural history research programs and collections are subsidized by museum ticket sales, membership fees, and retail shops. I can think of no other field of science that is mostly supported by tickets, restaurants, and book sales. Sadly, this puts natural history research and collections at grave risk, especially if museum attendance and revenues decline. What they need is ongoing, core support from major science funders. After all, these are critical scientific assets for the entire world, holding the information we need to address some of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns.

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.

Over the past couple of decades, biology has seen several powerful trends emerge, mostly focused in the areas of biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, genomics, and theoretical biology. Don’t get me wrong: these are important areas of inquiry, and we have learned much from them. But they have come to subsume nearly every other area of biological science, to the point of nearly putting several out of business.

If you don’t believe me, look at what is being taught in university biology departments today.

There has been an extraordinary decline in the teaching of natural history in our nation’s colleges and universities. Too many biology courses and degrees today are glorified biochemistry and genetics programs, where students rarely encounter organisms or anything actually alive.

A recent article in BioScience by Joshua Tewksbury and colleagues paints a depressing picture. At the graduate level, there has been a dramatic shift in recent decades. The proportion of biology doctorate degrees awarded in the United States that focused on natural history topics dropped from nearly 40% in 1960 to less than 20% in 1995 (the last year they analyzed the data). That figure is likely much smaller today. At the undergraduate level, Tewksbury et al. found a dramatic decline in natural history content taught in university biology degrees. They noted:

In the 1950s, all of the schools that we surveyed required some natural history courses for a biology degree (median = 2.25 courses), and introductory biology texts were dominated by natural history. Today, the majority of universities and colleges in the United States have no natural history requirements for a degree in biology, and the emphasis on natural history in introductory biology texts has dropped by 40% over the past 50 years.

Yes, you read that correctly. You can major in biology in most universities and colleges in the U.S. without taking a single course in natural history.

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.

Sadly, biology is falling into the same trap that physics did in the 1970s and 1980s—a massive shift towards reductionist splitting. This movement is based on the mistaken belief that the most important scientific work is done by breaking complex phenomena into their smallest possible components. Whether it’s particle physics or biochemistry, it’s the same story: “Gee, if we break this amazingly complex system into lots of tiny pieces then we will fully understand it all.”

That never works.

This ignores the very nature of complex systems, which function across a wide range of temporal and spatial scales, and are characterized by “emergent properties” when moving from one scale to the next. You can’t just break such a system into tiny pieces and expect to understand it. That’s like saying you can understand how the pyramids were built by breaking all of their stones into grains of sand, and sorting the types of sand into categories.

This reductionist approach simply cannot explain phenomena that occur across different time and spatial scales, whether in biology or physics. Particle physics cannot explain a hurricane. Likewise, genes do not explain how a forest breathes.

The overwhelming focus of today’s biology on biochemistry, molecular biology, and genomics essentially ignores other phenomena observed in the natural world. It turns its back on the great insights of Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold.

I have a hunch that biology has skewed so heavily toward the molecular-to-genetic scale of analysis because, let’s be honest, that’s where most of the money is.

The portfolio of biology research funding is wildly unbalanced today. If you work in molecular biology, biochemistry, or genomics, great—you likely have access to huge budgets at the NIH, NSF, the private sector, and major foundations. And with some luck, you can probably spin off a company, win giant prizes, and get your papers published in Nature, Science, and Cell. This is the land of grants and glory, so no wonder many young scientists are flocking there.

But if you study actual organisms, teach natural history, or work with collections, sorry, but as these articles from BioScience and The Independent suggest, you’re probably out of luck.

And, as noted earlier, this phenomenon trickles into education. When the big funding agencies start neglecting whole realms of science, so do professors, their department heads and deans, then whole universities, and eventually, the courses and majors they offer. There are now entire biology departments that don’t actually study anything larger than a cell.

We need to make sure that biological science remembers to look at all of the wonders of life on Earth, not just the workings of a biochemical pathway, a gene, or a single cell. We must embrace a broader view, balancing what we can learn about life at all scales—from molecules, genes, and cells to organisms, populations, ecosystems, and Earth as a whole. And we must remember the critical importance natural history plays in our understanding of life’s past, present, and future.

While it has become prevalent in many biology departments to think of natural history as the study of “dusty” old bones in a lab, that’s a woefully inaccurate and short-sighted view. Natural history is a big umbrella that combines many scientific disciplines—including evolutionary biology, taxonomy, ecology, geology, geography, and climatology—to describe the nature of life on Earth. It uses many techniques, including classical methods and recent developments in digital imaging, genomic analysis, computer simulation, and geospatial analysis.

Natural history collections are critical for this work. In perhaps the first “big data” project ever, scientists assembled countless biological specimens in museum vaults around the world, creating a four-dimensional dataset of our living world. In fact, natural history collections are the only datasets that document how Earth’s living systems have changed over time. With them, we can uncover the mysteries of evolution, understand the effects of climate change on species, examine the spread of environmental contaminants, and understand patterns of disease. These collections are among the most valuable scientific assets the world has ever gathered.

Far from being an obsolete branch of science, natural history couldn’t be more relevant to today’s concerns—especially those related to sustainability. Ultimately, achieving sustainability is about finding the story of how life on Earth, including us, thrives into the future. But if we cannot first understand and tell that story of life, we have no hope of sustaining it.

Scientific funders and universities must once again make the lessons of natural history, and the science and research collections they inspire, a real priority. The lens of natural history is absolutely crucial to understanding the rich diversity of life on Earth, and how it may change in future.

The scientific community needs to take a step back and create a more balanced set of priorities for funding, research, and education in biology. It is particularly crucial for major scientific funders to invest in a much wider variety of biological science disciplines. In the past, funders recognized the incredible value of natural history and their research collections. They supported this work, knowing that collections are priceless scientific assets, containing invaluable information. They knew then what too few people know now: Losing this perspective would be a crime against science, and against future generations.

Let’s make sure that ours is not the first generation in history to turn our backs on the stories of nature, the science that uncovers them, and the lessons they inspire for the future. If we do turn our backs, it will be a tragic chapter in the history of science, and ultimately in the history of life on Earth.

Jonathan Foley

Dr. Jonathan Foley is the Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, where he oversees the institution’s programs of scientific research, education, and public engagement. A world-renowned scientist, Foley has made major contributions to our understanding of land use and climate, global food security, and the sustainability of the world’s resources. In addition to recognizing their importance for answering big scientific questions, Foley thinks the 46 million specimens in the Academy’s collections are just plain cool, and getting to explore them is one of his favorite job perks. Follow him on Twitter @globalecoguy.

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