Natural history’s place in science and society

One of the themes that runs through many of the posts on this blog is that natural history matters, that it’s relevant, that it’s science, and that there’s still a lot we don’t know about the natural history of some of our most common and widespread organisms.

We’ve just published a paper in BioScience that expands on that theme. The paper, now online in advance access (and freely available for download!) examines case studies that show how basic natural history knowledge can be used to address problems in human health, food security, resource management and conservation, and also how lacking, or ignoring, natural history knowledge can just make things worse.

We talk about the benefits of good natural history knowledge, and the costs of not considering natural history. In a range of examples from early detection and control of cholera, to bioprospecting for pharmaceuticals; from early failures of the Green Revolution in Africa, to collapse of commercial fisheries, to successes in pest management; from the ecological cost of forest fire suppression in the western United States, to the benefits of incorporating natural history knowledge in wetland management and recreation.

Despite the obvious (to us anyway!) importance of natural history in science and society, many people have argued that the scientific study of natural history has been in decline in recent years. If it’s true, then that’s a problem. So we decided to find out. It turns out that, by the criteria we examined, there is a problem.

We looked at a few lines of evidence to track the decline of natural history through the past several decades. Here’s the short version:

• The number of natural history museums and collections has been declining since the 1990s.

• Although the total number of PhD degrees in biology has been rapidly climbing since the early 1960s, the proportion of PhD’s in disciplines related to natural history has declined by about 50%.

• At the undergraduate level, the proportion of pages in general biology textbooks declined from almost 70% in the 1930s to less than 40% in 2005. Over the same time period, the minimum number of natural history-related courses required to get a Bachelor’s degree in Biology in many US colleges also declined (to a current average just over one. One course). Clearly, we have a problem.

So what’s the answer? How do we revitalize natural history in science?

• Claim the title! Be willing to identify as a naturalist. Natural history may not be deemed modern, or relevant, or necessary by some of our colleagues or administrators, but they are just wrong.

• Connect, collaborate, interact. Seek out like-minded people, regardless of their background or focus. Have the conversations to show how important natural history is, and then dive into the research and education that’s so necessary to build our knowledge of natural history.

• Embrace technology! We have a vast array of new tools for studying natural history, as well as the means to connect to a global network of naturalists, researchers and users. Use the new tools!

• Go where the people are, and go where the nature is! Natural history does not just happen in the distant wild places. It happens in cities and parks and houses. It happens in the lab and the museum. We, as a community, need to rekindle and encourage an interest in nature in young people. And they don’t need to go very far for that to happen.

There’s a lot of work to do, and quite a few minds to change. Let’s get started.


Tewksbury, J.J., Anderson, J.G.T., Bakker, J.D., Billo, T.J., Dunwiddie, P.W., Groom, M.J., Hampton, S.E., Herman, S.G., Levey, D.J., Machnicki, N.J., Martinez del Rio, C., Power, M.E., Rowell, K., Salomon, A.K., Stacey, L.,Trombulak, S.C., and T.A. Wheeler. 2014. Natural history’s place in science and society. BioScience doi:10.1093/biosci/biu32



About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Research News, Science Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Natural history’s place in science and society

  1. Greg Pohl says:

    Terry, I’m a little tardy catching up on my online reading, and just got to this. Nice work, as usual.
    It just occurred to me – is part of the problem with lack of relevance, due to the term “natural history” itself? Maybe you’ve addressed this elsewhere… “history” means looking into the past. That word sounds tired, dusty, and backwards. Not very innovative. Of course that’s not true at all – much of “natural history” is very much rooted in the present, and has much to teach (and remind) us – but when you’re trying to find resources and generate interest, that word might be working against us naturalists. It conjures those images of notebooks and plant presses, not the technology you write about. And there’s no question that images and perceptions influence the decisionmakers who have power over resources, media space, and ‘spin’. But what we do is very much about how natural organisms and systems ARE, not just how there WERE. So I don’t think “natural history” is a very accurate term to begin with.
    I’m not necessarily advocating some new jargon, but maybe there’s a better label that doesn’t carry that Victorian perception as baggage? “Naturalist” works for the practitioner, but what about the science? Simply “Nature” or “natural science” instead of “natural history”? As long as we don’t get confused with “naturists”! [I couldn’t even google that word until I turned safesearch off!] “Biology” is too broad, but what we mostly do is “whole organism biology”. Which is too long. Thoughts?

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