Thursday, July 29, 2010

Saving Natural History (Part 1)

As a youngster, I was fascinated by all aspects of nature, regularly coming home with pocketfuls of sticks, rocks, bugs, or some other terrestrial flotsam and jetsam discovered during my daily travels. Returning from family camping trips in the wilds of British Columbia, there were inevitably heavy, oddly shaped rocks or fossils to be unloaded and placed in a corner of the yard with collections from previous excursions. For me, the highlights of these camping adventures were the guided walks, where I would stick like glue to the park naturalist and ask an unending flurry of questions. When I was five years old my mother recognized this passion by signing me up for the “Young Naturalists Club.” I still remember the excitement I felt when my membership package finally arrived, including a white button emblazoned with the club name and the face of a smiling raccoon. Finally, I thought, I was a real naturalist.

This passion for nature (including dinosaurs, of course) persisted through my childhood and teen years, despite the near absence of nature study I received in school. When I finally arrived at university in the late 70’s, I immediately searched the course listings for offerings on natural history, and was dismayed to find that the only such courses were for senior students specializing in a particular area of biological study: for example, oceanography, ornithology, or entomology. Little did I know that I was about 20 years too late [1].

For the first half of the 20th Century, natural history—the systematic study of natural objects and organisms—was not only a thriving discipline within the natural sciences, but a major part of growing up for vast numbers of people in Western societies. Practitioners of this respected subject, including many lacking formal credentials, were known as “natural historians,” or, more simply, “naturalists.” Naturalists identify and categorize the denizens of their local environs. Serious enthusiasts tend to be collectors, with rocks, plants, butterflies, and beetles among the common targets. Serious birders, who collect observations rather than specimens, can also be placed within these ranks. Most importantly, naturalists love to spend time outdoors interacting with the nonhuman world. Many, perhaps most, children raised prior to the close of WW II were introduced to the practice of natural history, often at school and at home.

Then, for the latter half of the 20th Century, natural history underwent a steady and precipitous decline. At the professional level, the scientific study of natural history, with its focus on observing whole organisms, was largely supplanted by a suite of reductionist sub-disciplines like cell and molecular biology. Even fields with a larger perspective, like ecology, placed overwhelming emphasis on “rigorous” experimental studies, eschewing as quaint and outdated the kinds of subjective observations that are the bread and butter of naturalists. Among laypersons, fewer and fewer people were trained in nature study, largely because those doing the training had no successors. Other trends, like the migration from rural to urban settings and the increased emphasis on “hard” sciences like math and physics, further relegated natural history to a neglected corner of the library stacks [1].

Today, although children (and adults) can identify dozens of corporate logos, few can name even a handful of the plants and animals that live around them. Fewer still spend significant amounts of time outside, choosing instead to remain plugged into the artificial reality of cyber-world instead of experiencing the real world beyond the front door. As a result, natural history teeters on the edge of extinction, threatening to take down much of the biosphere with it. It seems highly unlikely that people will save something they don’t care about. And they’re certainly not going to care about something with which they’ve had no meaningful experience. That’s why the loss of nature study embodied by natural history is so tragic, and dangerous.

To compound matters, the demise of natural history teaching means that the overwhelming majority of educators today lack any background in nature study, and thus they are ill prepared to convey even the basics on local plants and animals. Fortunately, the number of exceptions to this disturbing trend is growing, including remarkable teachers and initiatives often gathered under the umbrella of “environmental education.” Yet even these outdoor-focused programs tend to have a strong ecological bent, emphasizing the big picture of ecosystem function, with minimal time spent identifying local plants and animals, let alone sitting quietly in the company of one’s nonhuman neighbors.

Outside of formal education, the primary cultural institutions engaging in natural history are museums, augmented by nature centers (and, to a lesser extent, zoos, aquaria, and botanical gardens). Natural history museums emerged in the Victorian era as “cabinets of curiosities,” places where one could witness rare, beautiful, and/or ancient objects from the natural world--everything from minerals and fossils to animals and artifacts—often collected in distant lands. They remained very popular through the 20th Century, with institutions like the American Museum of Natural History (New York), the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum (Washington, DC), and the Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago) amassing vast collections.

Here in the early 21st Century, museums of natural history are struggling to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves. Of particular concern are issues like relevancy and the balance of education versus entertainment (the “edutainment” conundrum) [2]. Recognizing natural history as a dying practice that few today can even define, some museums are electing to divorce themselves from the term (e.g., the Chicago institution is now formally known as “The Field Museum”). Although most natural history museums still engage in collections-based research, only a smattering of the scientists doing this work could honestly identify with the term “naturalist.” Rather than making detailed observations of local flora and fauna, these scientists engage in analytical, often experimental studies like those of their counterparts at universities. Most museum staff (including the scientists) would struggle to name multiple examples of local plants, rocks, insects, or birds.

As someone with almost 25 years of experience around natural history museums, I am of the strong opinion that natural history deserves not only to be saved, but to be resurrected to its former glory. However, like the museums housing the collections of plants, animals, rocks, and artifacts, the notion of natural history itself must be reinvented to address the pressing needs of our time. I think that museums are the best available candidates to carry out this resurrection/reinvention. We desperately need more systematists, researchers who can go out and catalogue the world’s biological diversity. Of the estimated 10-15 million species alive on earth today, less than 3 million have been formally named, let alone investigated in detail [3]. Speaking of which, we also need more field biologists and ecologists to carry out firsthand studies of organisms living in their native habitats. Only by understanding how those habitats work (for example, the flow of energy and the cycling of nutrients) can we begin to determine how to preserve them.

Natural history museums have an equally vital role to play in the realm of education. They possess the expertise and tools (collections, exhibits, and other programming) to help children and adults (including educators!) learn about the plants and animals native to their region. This statement applies particularly to regional museums like the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, the Utah Museum of Natural History (Salt Lake City), and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which tend to have more of a local focus than their larger sister institutions like the AMNH and Field Museum. Both personally and professionally, I am very pleased to see “Young Naturalist”-type organizations popping up once again, some of them linked closely to museums. More than ever before, we need to raise a generation of naturalists!

I suspect that relatively few in the museum world would disagree with the above statements. Scientists like the renowned biologist E.O. Wilson have long sounded the clarion call for more systematists and field biologists [3,4]. Indeed Wilson, a self-proclaimed naturalist, is striving for no less than a comprehensive Encyclopedia of Life, with an entry for every species on Earth [5]. Similarly, museum educators, swept up in the rapidly growing “No Child Left Inside” movement [6], are now spending more time developing outdoor education programs.

Nevertheless, in my view, more of the same kind of science and education simply won’t cut it. If we are to face the sustainability challenge head-on, we need a bolder, more encompassing vision well beyond that generally being considered within both formal and informal education circles. To my mind, natural history must be central to that vision. In stark contrast to the cabinets of curiosities model, natural history museums in the 21st Century have the potential to reinvent themselves as key players in the drive toward sustainability. In my next Whirlpool of Life post, I will delve into this vision.

Many of the ideas presented here and in my next post were developed while I served as chief curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT. I am indebted to the UMNH for allowing me to pursue some of these ideas, and am happy to say that the new UMNH facility, scheduled to open late in 2011, will include some of the concepts addressed in this blog. For more info, check out:

1. R. M. Pyle. 2007. The rise and fall of natural history. In B. Lopez (ed.), The Future of Nature. Milkweed, Minneapolis. (This article was originally published in Orion Magazine in 2001)
2. Weil, S. 2002. Making Museums Matter. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
3. Wilson, E. O. 2005. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. W. W. Norton, New York. 4. Wilson, E. O. 2002. The Future of Life. Knopf, New York.
5. Encyclopedia of Life Project:
6. Children & Nature Network:

Image Credits
All images courtesy of National Geographic:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Subjectification of Nature

Several weeks ago while hammering away on the computer, struggling to improve the same paragraph for the umpteenth time, I heard it again—the cry of a red-tailed hawk. This was not the beautiful, haunting, and justifiably famous red-tail “kree-eee-ar” that seems to pierce the core of your being. No, this was more of a repetitive, high-pitched wailing that brought to mind a demented sea-gull. Over the previous days and weeks, this incessant noise had driven me to the ragged edge of distraction. What’s the problem with that bird?, I kept asking myself (but in much less kind language).

The following day, while ascending the stairs after a long walk, I heard that same wailing, but this time it was directly overhead. Craning my neck and raising a hand to block the sun, I saw a young hawk wobble unsteadily on unskilled wings, barely navigating its way to a nearby tree. Suddenly the chaos of my thoughts was shattered by the realization that those incessant shrieks were the desperate cries of a fledgling red-tail calling out to parents for food and comfort. Immediately my frustration over the clamor vanished, replaced by a sense of compassion for this awkward youngster attempting to master a talent about which I could only dream. The animal that had seconds before been little more than an object of annoyance was transformed into a marvelous, freshly volant subject—a living, breathing creature that filled me with wonder. (I also reminded myself of this animal's dinosaurian status, making the connection back into deep time.)

Today, we in Western societies are in desperate need of a large-scale transformation in consciousness that parallels my attitude shift toward the hawk. Much of our unsustainable behavior can be traced to a broken relationship with nature, a worldview that treats the nonhuman world as a realm of mindless objects all but incapable of feeling. The road to sustainability must be built upon a radically new perspective (or at least a re-invention of an old one) that reanimates the living world and views other creatures as relatives to be respected rather than resources to be exploited. What we require is no less than the subjectification of nature. In the insightful words of “geologian” Thomas Berry, we must transform the world “from a collection of objects to a communion of subjects.”

To subjectify is to interiorize, such that the exterior world interpenetrates one’s interior world. Whereas the relationships we share with subjects often tap into our hearts, objects are dead to our emotions. Finding ourselves in relationship, boundaries of self can actually become permeable and blurred. Many of us have experienced such feelings with lovers, family, friends, and even pets. For indigenous peoples around the world, the notion of being embedded in a landscape of relatives is not alien at all; we have much to learn from this ancient wisdom.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the subjectification of nature is science, a cultural practice founded on the notion of objectivity. Scientists seek to objectify nature so that they can measure, test, and study it. In order to undertake such studies, we biologists tend to think animals in terms of fragments—from genes and bones to reproductive strategies and dietary preferences. Yet it is my contention that this pervasive, centuries-old trend toward fragmentation and objectification need not preclude us from treating nature as subjects. In other words, the subjectification of nature would not require that we abandon objectivity. After all, scientists have managed (at least most of the time) to treat their fellow humans as both subjects and objects. Why can’t we extend this same duality to nonhuman nature?

What would nature look like if we truly regarded it as a communion of subjects? Perhaps more to the point, what would it feel like? As evidenced by my initial attitude toward the fledgling red-tail, I am hardly an authority on the matter, and have a long way to go in my own personal growth. Like most of us in the industrialized West, I must battle a lifetime of practice in objectification, augmented in my case by training as a scientist. Nevertheless, while I can attest only to brief glimpses of such a fundamentally different perspective, I have found these fleeting insights both profound and inspiring. Such experiences have left me deeply convinced that widespread subjectification will be an essential element in sustainability.

But how might we undertake the “subjectification transformation?” Worldviews are deeply ingrained in adult minds, so much so that they become like the air we breathe—essential but ignored. As I’ve argued previously on this blog, much of the answer is going to be found in education. We must gain the wisdom to shift our views and raise our children so that they can see the world with new eyes. It may sound heretical, but science education in particular could be re-invented with subjectification in mind. Certainly the practice of science—the actual doing of scientific research—must be done as objectively as possible. But the communicating of science could include both objective and subjective components. Imagine if the bulk of science education took place outdoors, in direct contact with the natural world. And imagine if parents and educators emphasized not only the identification and functioning of parts (say, of flowers or insects), but the notion of organisms as sensate beings. What if students were asked more to spend more time learning about how a particular plant or animal experienced its world?

A tool with amazing potential is the “soap bubble technique,” attributed to biologist Jakob von Uexküll [1]. Take a group of children outside and ask them to imagine each and every organism to be surrounded by a transparent bubble, within which they can experience only the perceptual world of that organism. Then ask the children to select a particular organism (perhaps from a sample considered earlier in the classroom) and try to imagine what it might be like to actually be that creature. Take earthworms for example. These soil denizens detect light but not color, so the rainbow of hues with which we construct our world suddenly disappears. Earthworms have a keen sense of taste, but no ability to smell. In lieu of vision, their dominant senses are taste and touch, and they are particularly sensitive to ground vibrations.

The soap bubble technique is powerful because it helps to transport us beyond our everyday world and foster a sense of relationship with nonhuman organisms. Done repeatedly over a period of years, it is easy to envision how practices like this might encourage children to see their native places as communities of subjects worthy of care and respect. Conversely, I cannot imagine any community becoming sustainable if people do not care about their native places.

As I type the final paragraph of this post, I can still hear that fledgling red-tail calling out. Although far from melodious, the sound now generates within me feelings of compassion rather than frustration. I have hopes that Western societies will embrace a similar transition; that we will realize the promise and potential of subjectification and begin a dialogue on how we might inject this much-needed perspective into schooling for sustainability.

1. Evernden, N. 1993. The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment, Second Edition. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 172 pp.

Image Credits
Top: Red-tail hawk:
Middle images: National Geographic: Bottom image:

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Great Triad

The mysterious power of the number three has a long and distinguished history. Among the Classical Greeks, Plato suggested that truth, beauty, and goodness are the primordial values against which all things can be judged. His student Aristotle, speaking on rhetoric, argued for three primary modes of persuasion—logos, pathos, and ethos—appeals to logic, emotions, and the character of the speaker, respectively. I’m convinced that these two Greek triads are interwoven, with modern lessons for a world in crisis.

Aristotle’s rhetorical trio is often linked to body parts: logos to brain, pathos to heart, and ethos to gut. Equivalent linkages can be made to Plato’s “Big Three.” Truth reflects mind, beauty reflects pathos or spirit, and goodness reflects gut or consciousness. More recently, philosophers have sometimes associated Plato’s primal values with the developmental sequence of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; begin with beauty, layer on truth, and synthesize these into a sense of goodness.

Once unified, it seems to me that this “Great Triad” holds immense power because it embodies different kinds of knowing. All of us have experience understanding something intellectually that has minimal bearing on our emotions (street names or geometry, for example). Conversely, knowledge may be rooted in emotions or intuitions, fostering deeply held beliefs with little to no basis in reason (choice of partner, sacredness of a particular place). A third, even deeper kind of knowledge is founded on “gut feelings” that often reflect the marriage of intellect and emotions. Worldviews, I would like to propose, reside in the gut, rooted in a messy mixture of logos and pathos.

I make no assertions about the originality of this claim. I’m a paleontologist, not a philosopher, so my expertise relates more to ancient life than to the nature of reality. Yet, whether empirically accurate or not, it seems to me that this tripartite division of knowledge offers a useful tool for probing our present eco-crisis. Ecological sustainability in any meaningful sense will require not only new technologies, but a new worldview, one that re-inserts humanity inside nature and transforms the nonhuman world (to borrow Thomas Berry’s poignant phrase) from “a collection objects to communion of subjects.”

At present, Western societies rely overwhelmingly on intellect and scientific truth, giving little credit to the role of emotions and spirit. We live too much in our heads, not enough in our hearts. This centuries-old bias results in terribly skewed worldviews, causing our guts to mislead us again and again into decisions devoid of any sense of beauty. Resetting the balance will demand, among other things, a transformation (rather than mere “reform”) of our schooling system, including new approaches to both the delivery and content of education. In particular, learning must spark the heart as well as the mind. Devoid of any sense of what is beautiful, let alone sacred, intellectual knowledge remains sterile, often unable to influence worldviews and behavior (or doing so in dangerous ways).

Let me illustrate by making what may seem an outlandish claim. At heart, most of us in Western societies are a bunch of flat-earthers and creationists.

Intellectually, we know that we live on a spherical world hurtling with a gaggle of other planets around a nearby star. Yet we still speak of sunrise and sunset, and persist in conceiving of ourselves as living on the top of the world. Of course, reality is rather different; the rotation of the Earth causes the sun to appear to rise and fall in our sky, and we live on the side of our rapidly spinning globe, anchored by the mysterious force of gravity. My point is this—we know (in our minds) that we live on a sphere, but live (through our hearts) as if the world was flat.

Similarly, even for those who embrace the notion of evolution, the vast majority of us are effectively creationists. Don’t believe me? Step outside, look at the nearest tree, or dog, or bird, and ask yourself the following question: Do I regard this organism as my relative, part of my extended family tree? If you’re like the vast majority of people, your honest answer is no.

If we truly embraced the notion of common descent through deep time—not just in our minds, but in our hearts—would we put chimpanzees, our closest living evolutionary relatives, in cages for public display? Would we decimate rainforests, overfish oceans, or foul our native bioregions? Perhaps. After all, humans frequently don’t treat members of their own kind with compassion and empathy. Nevertheless, for those of us in the industrialized West, the notion of living in community with the natural world is an alien one. For us, nature isn’t relatives, its resources.

How, then, might we communicate scientific concepts like spherical planets and biological evolution so as to engage emotions, building upon the “knowledge” of pathos so as to influence ethos? I am aware of two principle tools: experience and narrative.

Firsthand experience outdoors has the potential to stir our emotions deeply. As most of us know, smelling wildflowers, holding a slug, and beholding a full moon are all experiences that differ mightily from virtual alternatives. Next time you watch a sunset, hold the image in your mind of sitting on the side of rotating globe; it helps to have a planet like Venus nearby to the sun so that you can picture yourself as part of a solar system of worlds. If you’re lucky, just as the sun disappears below the horizon, you will have a momentary experience of vertigo as you fathom your true relationship to our nearest star. Do this frequently and you may just shift the way you envision your place on Earth.

Now imagine if, in stark contrast to the vast bulk of present day schooling, children learned about evolution largely in natural settings, with appropriate reverence given to the bounty of relatives inhabiting our communities. We might call this “experiential science education,” a strategy worthy of broad application in science teaching. As I see it, without abundant time spent outside in intimate contact with nonhuman nature, some of it guided by adult mentors, we will be unable to move beyond intellectual understanding to form meaningful bonds with the nonhuman world.

With regard to the second tool, narrative, I have written previously in this blog of the importance of the Great Story, the epic of evolution that extends from the Big Bang to the present day. If evolution were taught as the history of the universe (rather than focusing predominantly on obtuse concepts like mutation, natural selection, and adaptation), we would become fully engaged in this astounding story, which just happens to be our story. Beyond the science class, this story could be conveyed through numerous creative arts—from painting and poetry and to drama and dance—with the potential to reach our deepest emotions. Only when the Great Story becomes meaningful in both our minds and hearts, tapping into our sense of truth and beauty, will we begin to truly understand what it means to be part of a single, evolving universe at this pivotal moment in deep time. And only then will we begin to conceive of nature as relatives deserving of our compassion and empathy rather than resources for our exploitation.

In short, the lesson of the Great Triad is this: If we are to foster wisdom and navigate our way into a sustainable future, knowledge must pass through our hearts on the way from the mind to the gut. The roots of service (Goodness) lie in the amalgam of both insight (Truth) and compassion (Beauty). Logos + Pathos = Ethos.

Image Credits
All images courtesy of National Geographic: