The Case of the Disappearing Naturalists
Those with Naturalist Skills Are Becoming Few and Far Between
During an interview I was asked about why I represented this blog as a resource for naturalists and educators. The interviewer was driving at the idea of, “What is a naturalist?" Because you rarely hear the term anymore. I started really chewing on this idea because it’s something that has been rattling around in the back of my head for a long time. I’ve noticed that naturalists seem to be a dying breed. Anecdotally it appears that there is a clear decline in those dedicated to natural history. Why are naturalists disappearing?
When you think of a scientist you most likely conjure a picture of someone in a lab coat studying mice or using test tubes in a sterile lab somewhere. When you think of a naturalist you may picture a crunchy granola-eating and sandal wearing Grizzly Adams type. But, what is a naturalist if they are not scientists? I really abhor referencing dictionary definitions of anything (years of philosophy classes have taught me better), but technically a naturalist is someone that studies organisms, plants and animals, and is focused more on external observation, in the world, than experimentation (as a funny aside, once I Googled “naturalist jobs” and I came up with postings about nudist camps, so there is still come confusion about the term naturalist). Naturalists study nature and natural history; their interests may be very broad (on an ecosystem scale) or very focused (on a macro-scale like with insects or soils). Most are engaged in looking at plants and animals as well as their life cycles (phenology), and examining how ecosystems and their parts fit together. They study a wide range of -ologies, from entomology to meteorology, they often like or study a bit of them all. I think of naturalists as having breadth of knowledge (Renaissance men and women). Naturalists may conduct experiments, like scientists, but more often than not it’s out of curiosity rather than the drive for publication. I also find that naturalists are great at picking out patterns in nature and extrapolating information. This may range from seasonal patterns to patterns in insect behavior, feathers, leaves, shapes, etc. Pattern recognition is one of the strongest parts of a naturalists critical thinking skills.
Where have all the naturalists gone?
As you know Aristotle and the early Greeks were referred to as naturalists, not scientists. When did natural history and science split? I’m not going to go into a history of science here, but natural history was a parallel of natural philosophy for hundreds of years. One was focused on teleological concerns (the great “why” questions of reality) and one was focused on observable physical phenomenon. As the study of natural history has progressed there has been a steady increase in specialization and the technological advances that allow more precise, and deeper, examinations of specific parts of the natural world. This shift began to occur roughly around the Industrial Revolution. Up until this time there were still many “gentleman” and “lady” naturalists. With the rise of technology the amount of data and information about the natural world has grown exponentially. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the journals, papers, websites, articles, blogs, news, and more. This means that people have shifted away from natural history into specialized niches of study. It’s much the same way that most of us rarely go “just” to the doctor anymore, we’re referred to specialists again and again.
I would also hypothesize that this shift from natural history has something to do with our education system. It was not uncommon for early Greeks or Victorian scholars to study natural history. However, these classes have been replaced with specialized disciplines and degrees. This is especially true in classes with the modern emphasis of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Unfortunately the “science” aspect of STEM is often taught as the ‘hard’ sciences, such as statistical analysis, biology, and chemistry. The softer sciences of ecology and natural history are not a major focus. It’s much harder to get kids outside and looking at ecosystems and patterns than to have them sit and learn facts from a book our use a calculator (especially urban kids). STEM classes also often teach to the “standardized test” of facts and figures. Critical thinking and problem solving about nature’s systems, natural history patterns, and system complexities are not a major focus because there is no right answer. There are many answers and variables in natural history, little of which is neatly wrapped up in tidy quantifiable packages. Naturalists learn by doing, they don't have "bonafide" credentials or pass collegiate tests; which may mean that they are disappearing because they are viewed as less than credible.
Now I know, that all of this is a broad generalization, there are pockets of those trying to integrate natural history into STEM and other fields, but by and large natural history as a school discipline is disappearing if not entirely gone. The only upshot to this is that Master Naturalist courses are popping up around the county. These are typically aimed at adults, and seniors, and those with time to focus on an interest in continued nature study. The difficulty I see is that we are training generations of young scientists without an appreciation of natural history as a whole; with all its squishy unsolvable mysteries, soft reasoning, and observations. Natural history provides the skills of pattern recognition and the ability to look at an entire system and think critically. This information can then be applied to unknown systems or problems. I’ve met many, many biologists, scientists, outdoor educators, and even science teachers that are not naturalists. They focus on a specific topic, area of knowledge, facts, book-learning, and even just what they are “told” is science. They do not go out into the field to find the patterns, make observations, or have an appreciation for the larger picture of bios (life) they profess to understand.
I would suggest that natural history is just as integral to science as the core concepts of chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics. All science owes its roots to natural history. Natural history provides the scaffolding on which to hang all these ideas and put everything together. It helps us find meaning in our place in the world and all the sound bites of information out there. Naturalists are like the wisdom keepers or story tellers; they weave the story of the natural world together, and make sense of it all. I think we should treat naturalists like an endangered species (sans ear tags) and begin to protect and value their teachings and skill sets. How much more would you have loved science if you’d gotten to be a naturalist outdoors like Rachel Carson or Aldo Leopold? Naturalists can provide that passion.
If you're interested in learning more about becoming a naturalist check out my previous post about Master Naturalist programs across the US. There are many wonderful naturalists, living ans past, that are worth investigating. In coming posts I'll explore some of these unsung individuals.