Natural history: out of fashion and out of time?

To my fellow natural history students/natural historians: I’m sorry, but we’re not cool anymore. Yes I know that we think we’re cool because we alone know the truth, that we are cool. But no one else in the science world thinks we’re cool even though the stuff we study is just as cool as the cool stuff  anyone else studies. But if every thing that scientists study is cool then suddenly the playing field is level again and we’re back to having our coolness defined by other people’s perceptions. And I’m sorry to say that they tend to think that we focus a little too much on how things have sex.

Most whole organism biologists I know don’t even call themselves ‘naturalists’. It’s a little too close to ‘naturist’ and has airy fairy, non-intellectual connotations. Then, when a visiting mite scientist from Alberta makes an offhand comment about how little natural history is practised nowadays, it seems a natural state of affairs even if it’s not apparent why it should be. Then, at least once a year in my university life, I’ve been asked ‘when are you going to change to a real degree?’ or ‘does this have any commercial application’? In order to see how natural history became a slightly embarrassing branch of academia with little societal ‘value’ and how the field has actually started shrinking, apparently without our notice, one has to take a look at the pursuit’s history which saw it see-saw in and out of vogue.

Now, ‘natural history’ is a slippery concept. ‘Natural’ is easy enough: animals, plants, geography, geology, plus chemistry (back before physics invaded it). Then a ‘history’, back when the term was first coined, meant more of a description or a systematic account (Herman, 2002). Therefore, natural history is a descriptive and analytical science tasked with providing a systematic account of the natural world be it biological, chemical or geological .

Carl (1707-1778)

Natural history has ancient origins –Aristotle level ancient (Llana, 2000). But it’s modern heyday probably began in the 1700s with the discovery of new flora and fauna in the New World. The printing press provided the means to accumulate and disseminate information quickly and, consequently, scientists were flooded with information from around the world and forced to create systems and diagrams simply to deal with the information overload. This epoch generated the taxonomic work of Swede Carl Linnaeus as well as a wealth of texts by others including the famed Encyclopédie, a significant Enlightenment era work published in France in which natural history – particularly botany – featured heavily (Llana, 2000; Müller-Willer & Charmantier, 2012).

By comparison, the world of natural history is a lot quieter now. There is even concern that it will go extinct altogether (Wilcove & Eisner, 2000). As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, key scientists had already side-lined natural history as an amateur’s pursuit in their unwavering adherence to Karl Popper’s ruling that, in order to be a true capital-‘S’ Science, a field’s theories must

K-Pop (1902-1994)

be falsifiable. Natural history, which generates qualitative descriptions, does not quality (Schmidly, 2005). Even though Popper’s emphasis on falsification has been shown to be limited and overly simplistic historically, a distrust of inferential and descriptive analysis persists (Chalmers, 1999). Furthermore, with the pressure during World War II and the Cold War to fund science which generates ‘results’ (Pyle, 2001); a persistent focus on medical sciences; the growth of urban populations producing generations with little experience in the ‘natural’ world (Weigl, 2009); and a degree of technophilia with the rise of molecular biology  (Schmidly, 2005), it’s easy to see why ‘faddism’ developed in universities. In short, the big biology bandwagon is parked outside molecular science’s door.

Consequently, many American natural history departments are down-sizing as the number of students who have interest in the natural world decreases and as universities scramble for funding which inevitably goes towards sure-fire, rapidly generated, high impact publications (i.e. non-ecological studies). Many natural history courses are discontinued after the co-ordinating professor leaves and some departments sell their natural history collections (Schmidly, 2005).

The effects are less keenly felt in New Zealand because, more so than in other places, experience with and respect for the natural environment is coded into our national identity (whether we really deserve this ‘greenie’ image is another matter altogether). Beach-goers are still treated to orcas in the harbour and if you’re lucky then a kereru he size of a rugby ball will alight on your puriri tree with all the grace of a small helicopter. That is to say nothing of our dependence on primary industries.


Yet the gloom’s starting to gain traction here. When people ask ‘Oh animal biology? So not real science then?’, that’s the internalised, 100-year old notion of natural history as an irrelevant science talking. But I still think ‘extinction’ is a little dire. After all:

1)       Our ever expanding world still has unknown frontiers which require analysis whether it be the surface of Mars or the deep sea. Where ever there are new species being discovered or borders being extended, there is a need for the descriptive quality of natural history. After all, for many years, the first issues of the Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, begun in 1868, were wholly dominated by natural history as settler-scientists began to roam about exploring the country.

2)       In addition, the naturalists’ deep abiding enthusiasm for the world has historically made them successful communicators to the public and this tradition continues today with the likes of David Attenborough (Schmidt, 1946) and this success

3)       Inspires amateurs to continue the practice.

4)       Furthermore, due to relatively low operating costs (like, the cost of a ruler, a pencil and petrol), natural history is an ideal field for developing universities or developing nations to establish academic profiles within (Schmidly, 2005).

5)       Finally, natural history’s extinction has been predicted before but it made like a species and adapted.

What I’m referring to is remediation of the ‘dichotomy’ between naturalists and experimentalists at the beginning of the twentieth century. As the split widened, scientific leaders called for a ‘synthesis of purpose and aims’ (Allen, 1979). The result was ‘Modern Synthesis’ which argues that all evolutionary phenomena can be explained in genetic terms which are consistent with observations by naturalists (Mayr, 2004). This theory is hailed by biologists and science historians as the ‘primary integrative event’ of twentieth century biology (Schmidly, 2005).

So while natural history is certainly not the hotshot of the science playground at the moment, an understanding of the pursuit’s history emphasises that its wane in estimation is the product of historical shifts in priorities and an adherence to debatable yet persistent science philosophies. This state of affairs may cause funding headaches and make employment difficult for people – which is bad – but we’re not witnessing a protracted extinction because it would be foolish to think that we have so completely explored our world to make natural history wholly redundant. At the very least, natural history imbues the world with detail and majesty. People like that.

References (APA)

Allen, G.E. (1979). Naturalists and experimentalists: the genotype and the phenotype. Studies in the History of Biology, 3, 179-209.

Chalmers, A.F. (1999). What is this thing called Science? United Kingdom: Open University Press.

Herman, S.G. (2002). Wildlife biology and natural history: time for a reunion. Journal of wildlife management, 66, 933-946.

Llana, J. (2000). Natural history and the “Encyclopédie”. Journal of the History of Biology, 33(1), 1-25.

Mayr, E. (2004). What makes biology unique? Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Müller-Willer, S. & Charmantier, I. (2012). Natural history and information overload: The case of Linnaeus. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical sciences, 43, 4-15.

Pyle, R.M. (2001). The rise and fall of natural history, Orion Autumn 2001, 16-23.

Schmidly, D.J. (2005). What it means to be a naturalist and the future of natural history at American universities. Journal of Mammology, 86(3), 449-456.

Schmidt, K.P. (1946). The new systematics, the new anatomy, and the new natural history. Copeia 1946, 57-63.

Weigl, P.D. (2009). The Natural History Conundrum Revisited: Mammalogy Begins at Home. Journal of Mammalogy, 90(2), 265-269.

Wilcove, D.S. & Eisner, T. (2000). The impending extinction of natural history. Chronicle of Higher Education,

47(3), B24.