What is natural history anyway?

Scientists like clarity. We like to have our definitions nicely lined up. We like to label things. But that’s not always easy. I’m a taxonomist. I’m an ecologist. I’m a naturalist. I know what all those labels mean, to me, at least. Others may define them differently – more broadly, more narrowly.

I gave a seminar yesterday at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. I talked about some of our ongoing research on taxonomy, ecology and natural history of arctic flies. It was great to reconnect with some old friends and colleagues, and to meet some new people. There was a great question period after the talk which, as good question periods do, gave me some fantastic ideas for new projects and new questions. But after the formal question period ended and a few of us were chatting more casually, I got the big question from another ecologist – what is natural history? I both love and fear that question.

Natural history spans disciplines. It flows through science and painting and poetry and photography and literature and walks in the woods. It’s hard to pin down. My friend and colleague Tom Fleischner defines natural history as: A practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy. I like that. It’s broad, it’s inclusive. It nicely encompasses both scientific and non-scientific approaches to natural history.

In a scientific context, I consider natural history as the search for, and description of, patterns in nature. And that can be either biotic or abiotic (A lot of dictionary definitions restrict natural history to animals and plants. Pretty narrow view of the world, if you ask me. Or a geologist. Or a microbiologist. Or a hydrologist. Or a poet . . .). Natural history addresses the questions what is it? what does it do? to what is it connected? Now to me, that’s part of science. “Science”, as I see it, includes the search for pattern. It has a descriptive component. Yesterday, my colleague and I differed on that last bit there. He did not see “natural history” as part of “science” (we both used a lot of air quotes) because he defined science as the search for processes, mechanisms and explanations of the patterns we see. See what I mean about definitions? We discussed our views for a while and did move a little closer to agreement on a couple of things. Then we decided to go and have some beer. On that, we were in complete agreement.

Natural history, in describing patterns in nature, builds an essential foundation for the rest of science. Yet, natural history is often viewed as archaic, arcane or “amateur” by many scientists and institutions. The word “history” implies, to many people, the sense that it’s old, that it’s already all done. No. Not at all. Natural history is the story of nature. In some other languages –French and Spanish, for example – the same word means both “history” and “story”. I like that. There’s a pleasing continuity to it.

We are a long way from understanding the natural history of a lot of the organisms and ecosystems we study. We can’t answer a lot of our questions about flies in arctic ecosystems, for example, because we don’t know who they are, what they do, or how they are related. We have to continue doing natural history research, and publishing those results in refereed journals (not “magazines”, as you might read on, say, Wikipedia. Sigh). It’s a necessary contribution to science, and it’s a necessary part of science.

Natural history is a big part of the science that I do, but it’s also a big part of my interactions with the world. I’m heading out to the tallgrass prairie today to see the summer plants getting ready to die back for winter. I’ll identify some plants, and maybe some late season insects. I’ll look at the patterns of rock and soil and water as I wander around. I won’t be doing “science”, really, but I’ll be practicing natural history. I need that to maintain my sometimes tenuous grip on sanity.

Natural history gives my students research projects, and it keeps my lab functioning. But it also takes me outside to interact with nature. I should do that more than I do. For many years, I’ve ended my first year Evolution class with a few simple bits of advice to the students. One of them is this: “poke nature”. I could just as easily say “practice natural history”. I just figured it would be more memorable the first way.

Natural History Matters. In lots of ways. Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to some great stories about why it matters at the Natural Histories Project. And check out the Natural History Network. One of our current initiatives is called The Definitions Project. No surprise there, I guess.

Reference: T.L. Fleischner. 2002. Natural history and the spiral of offering. Wild Earth 11 (3/4): 10–13.

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Lab and Field News and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to What is natural history anyway?

  1. Joel Hacking says:

    Reblogged this on Joel Hacking and commented:
    Natural history: a word probably best left undefined!

  2. Hi Joel, thanks for the reblog – always nice to see messages about the importance of natural history radiating out across the community. Natural history is certainly a tough one to define. It’s filtered through so many lenses by so many people, depending on how they interact with the natural world. A community ecologist and a painter, for example, would draw very different boundaries around what each perceives as “natural history”, yet both are certainly practicing natural history. Multiple definitions are needed, depending on the practitioners and the audience. But I think they are necessary if we are to continue to promote natural history to new audiences (humans and our labels . . . ) I’ll be posting again in future on the Definitions Project as it starts to pick up steam.

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  6. Andrew Durso says:

    I identified strongly with your statement “I need that to maintain my sometimes tenuous grip on sanity.”

    I also agree with the meaning of the phrase “practicing natural history” – you have to practice in order to be good at it. I tell this to my students all the time – it’s like playing music, you can’t learn it just by reading it from a book.

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