Why Ecology Needs Natural History

By Anderson, John G. T. | American Scientist, September/October 2017 | Go to article overview

Why Ecology Needs Natural History


Anderson, John G. T., American Scientist


In March 1908 a remarkable partnership was forged that would affect the practice and teaching of field biology for more than a century. Annie Montague Alexander, heiress to a Hawaiian sugar fortune, had trained in paleontology at the University of California. To the surprise and consternation of friends and family, Miss Alexander-as she was generally known-had participated in a number of expeditions in Alaska, the western United States, and Africa. Her experiences in the field had raised her concern over the loss of biodiversity and habitat as industrial agriculture and a growing human population transformed the western landscape. Teaming up with Joseph Grinnell, a recent Stanford University graduate who shared her passion for fieldwork, Alexander established the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley.

The museum's goal was to provide a carefully documented record of the distribution of animals across California that would serve as a reference for future biologists to assess changes in wildlife. Grinnell recognized the importance of this endeavor, saying in a 1910 article in Popular Science Monthly, "After the lapse of many years, possibly a century, the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California."

So detailed are Alexander and Grinnell's notes that more than a century later researchers can indeed compare the present distribution and abundance of birds and mammals across California in precise locations studied before the onset of modern development and climate change.

Unlike many patrons, who might be content to supply money or other resources so that other people can engage in studies or art, Alexander was a full participant in museum activities, collecting large numbers of animals and plants for the museum's archives and herbarium. She reveled in fieldwork, capturing and preserving her specimens, documenting their ranges and habitats, and sending specimens and notes back to Berkeley for preservation. Grinnell was equally active in the field, directed the museum, and taught generations of students in courses that eventually crystallized as an extended course in vertebrate natural history.

Although Grinnell had died in 1939 and Alexander, in 1950, when I took this course in 1978, the spirits of both naturalists were very much alive in the emphasis on spending as much time as possible examining animals in the outdoors. Every student conducted an independent two-term research project. Half-day field trips every week were mandatory, and there was the opportunity to spend long weekends at field stations near the coast or in the mountains. Of perhaps equal importance, instructors made clear to students that we were part of something much bigger than ourselves-a science of natural history that had formed the foundation for science itself.

Ecologist Tom Fleischner of Prescott College defined natural history in a 2001 article as "a practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy." Although this definition may hint at a degree of mysticism, it also illustrates why the process of broadly based, patient observation must be valued as an essential first step in the scientific method. For early humans, an understanding of plants and animals in the landscape was not a matter of academic interest but rather of simple survival. Once the immediate demands of food and shelter were met, sufficient leisure for the study and categorization of organisms for nonutilitarian values would have been possible. Natural history began as a descriptive practice, and classification created a common language and a methodology whereby experts from different areas could compare observations and begin to formulate patterns to make predictions. In this way, natural history-and one might say science as a whole-was bom.

Like any human endeavor, science has its fashions, and natural history fell out of fashion in the 20th century. …

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