Natural History in the 21st Century

24 May 2019

HerbariumCareThe informational revolution of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries has benefited ecology and evolutionary biology tremendously. Nowadays, genomic data on thousands of species is readily available, we can determine the types of plants a prehistoric rhino consumed by examining Carbon isotope ratios in its teeth, and computers can generate complex models of allele frequencies over time.

High quality information-gathering and data analysis is conducted with such ease now that it is almost impossible to comprehend ecology and evolutionary biology before it. The mountains of data Darwin used to build his argument in Origin of Species were largely collected from his own observations or the observations of other naturalists.

If biology is now riding the bullet train of technological progress, is natural history still useful? And even if it is useful, isn’t it on the rocks for good? Yes, it’s still useful, and no, it isn’t dead!

Advanced methods in science have not suddenly made natural history obsolete. Biologists cannot arrive at conclusions based on experimental data and modeling alone. Finding and correcting contradictions between experimental data and field data leads to better experiments and better models. Modeling and experimental data can point us to possible answers, but field data can determine whether or not we are right.

Though certain natural history subfields like botany may be taught less in universities, natural history is far from being in decline. Citizen science is entering its heyday, allowing more people than ever before to learn natural history and collect data themselves. Apps like eBird and iNaturalist allow anyone in the world to sign up and submit observations. On both sites, experts and more senior users frequently monitor submissions, ensuring that bad data are quickly corrected or removed. And with 21st Century access to field guides and online resources, misidentifications are less likely to happen in the first place.

Increasing knowledge about organisms and landscapes has not tarnished the wonder of walking through a forest or diving through a coral reef. On the contrary, scientific and technological progress have only made natural history more interesting and will only lead to better questions rather than duller ones.

– Callen Inman ’19, writing for the Cole Student Naturalists