Menus Subscribe Search

Quick Studies

natural history1

(Photo: Public Domain)

Natural History Isn’t Dead–It Just Crawled Into a Microscope

• April 01, 2014 • 11:41 AM

(Photo: Public Domain)

Natural history collections are consolidating. Lessons are being dropped from biology courses. But amid the apparent carnage, microbiology is rising.

The natural history champions of yesteryear aroused fascinations with ants, butterflies, and stream beds. Their infectious obsessions were more than idling interests: Silent Spring warned of DDT’s dangers.

But long after the field’s pioneers stoked America’s eco-consciousness, contemporary practitioners are warning that the specialty is shriveling like a salted slug. Herbaria are being consolidated. Kids don’t chase butterflies–they execute pedestrians on video games. Natural history is history as far as some textbooks are concerned.

“There are no grants for discovering new butterflies any more. But now we have this tremendous infusion of disciplines and technologies that allow us to look at natural history from different perspectives.”

Without a collective interest in how the natural world works, how will we usher humanity through the global warming epoch? Where will we find new tricks for feeding the growing billions?

These fears might be overblown. A team of biologists is questioning the very adage that natural history is in its death throes. If these revolutionaries are right, then natural history, that oft-intangible field that observes and describes the natural world, is alive and well. It’s just harder to see.

Many of today’s natural historians are camouflaged, the argument goes, cloaked in white lab coats in sterile laboratories. They aren’t plodding through old growth forests and writing books about what they see; they’re peering into electron microscopes and describing viruses and gut ecosystems in scientific papers. It is biology’s ballooning obsession with all things micro that’s letting us see HIV; that’s relieving chronic gastro patients with fecal transplants.

“There’s a cottage industry around whining about the decline of natural history,” says Joshua Tewksbury, a University of Washington natural history professor. “There are no grants for discovering new butterflies any more. But now we have this tremendous infusion of disciplines and technologies that allow us to look at natural history from different perspectives.”

BioScience-natural-history-jpg

Tewksbury helped launch the Natural Histories Project, which ran a series of National Science Foundation-funded workshops in 2011 designed to define contemporary natural history–and chart its future. The ideas that blossomed during them provided fodder for a journal article published last week in BioScience. It mulls over natural history’s place in 21st-century science and society.

“I think it’s a really exciting time to be a naturalist,” Tewksbury says. “But we’re trying to figure out what that means.”

The team tracked a half-century plunge in the number of natural history-related courses required for American biology degrees. They also quantified the drop in the amount of natural history coverage in introductory biology textbooks.

But the team sees reason for hope–it says natural history has metamorphosed as biology, technology, and society have evolved.

“Technology is expanding the reach of the naturalist, uncovering a new world of opportunities at the microbial scale,” the scientists write. “Microbial cells outnumber human cells 10:1 in the human body and contribute to defense, metabolism, and nutrition. The amount that is unknown in this field is truly vast.”

Tewksbury doesn’t deny that the world needs more traditional natural history–more museums, more collections, and more funding for field trips. But he posits that Americans are no longer merely interested in the natural world around them. They’re becoming obsessed with the natural world inside them.

John Upton
John Upton is a freelance journalist with an ecology background. He has written recently for VICE, Slate, Nautilus, Modern Farmer, Grist, and Audubon magazine. He blogs at Wonk on the Wildlife. Upton's favorite eukaryotes are fungi, but he won't fault you for being human. Follow him on Twitter @johnupton.

More From John Upton

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.