“It’s the binoculars of our age” — Josh Tewksbury
My last two posts focused on topics that are apparently very different: the importance of basic natural history; and the power of DNA barcoding (the first went a lot more viral than the second, which, I suppose, validates my message that natural history matters). In this post, I’ll attempt to tie those two posts together and I’ll argue that, although the practice of Natural History looks very different in the 21st Century, its goals and relevance are pretty much the same today as they have always been.
Binoculars, butterfly net, pencil and paper, plant press — these are the stereotypical tools of the natural history trade. But like so many stereotypes, that’s mostly wrong. The 21st Century naturalist uses new tools for timeless questions.
Throughout history, naturalists have embraced new technology — the printing press, lithography, photography, binoculars, microscopes — so why should we now be frozen in time? Digital photography and the internet, for example, are two of the most powerful new tools available to naturalists. Why not use them? If we choose to record our observations by speaking into a digital recorder, or using Evernote on our smartphone, we’re not really much different than a Victorian naturalist scribbling in her notebook. There’s no fundamental difference between Charles Darwin collecting an insect in South America, eventually bringing it back to England, and getting it into the hands of a specialist in a museum for identification, and a 12 year-old girl photographing a dragonfly with a smartphone, immediately uploading the photo to iNaturalist or BugGuide, and having someone halfway around the world provide an online identification. Both of those interactions represent a connection between observation and expertise. Both represent the accumulation of new biodiversity information. In fact, the only real differences are the speed and the fact that the process is open to a vastly bigger community.
A richly-illustrated, on-line, interactive key can make the process of species identification much more pleasant than flipping through a printed dichotomous key that’s devoid of pictures. A Scanning Electron Microscope lets us see very small things more clearly than binoculars or a light microscope. And DNA sequencing is simply another tool that unlocks a set of characters that we couldn’t previously use for recognizing new species. Admittedly, cost can be a factor. Some of the new technology is out of the reach of amateurs and students (and even some research scientists on a tight budget!). But most of it isn’t. Most of natural history is still a very democratic pursuit. And in fact, I would argue that low cost digital photography and the mostly free internet have transformed the collection and sharing of natural history information. They have helped usher in a Natural History Spring, if you will.
I recognize, and strongly support, the need to interact with nature or practice natural history unencumbered by technology (if you’re going to spend the ENTIRE DAY outside interacting with the world through the filter of your electronics, then you’re missing out on such a huge part of the experience of natural history). But, having the technology available makes a lot of natural history easier, and in fact makes some natural history possible.
Want to hear some more thoughts on the pros (and cons) of new tools for the 21st Century naturalist? Check out some conversations about technology at the Natural Histories Project.