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Rivas, J. A. 1997 Natural history: hobby or science? Conserv. Biol.: 11(3): 811-812. pdf

Natural History: Hobby or Science?

I found very interesting the discussion in Conservation Biology (1996, 10:923-927) inspired by the paper of Reed Noss (1996a); about naturalists disappearing and being replaced by model testing and computer work. Living in a remote field station in the heart of the Venezuelan Llanos (perhaps because I am trying to become a naturalist), I am late for this discussion in which I think a point was not well attended. I was surprised to read how supporters of natural history acknowledged it as something “good”, yet did not give it the value of a science nor did they stress the importance of it for conservation in places where biodiversity is highly unknown.

The disappearance of naturalists is especially troubling when we think about lack of people studying natural history in places such as the tropics, where many animals and plants are known only by the name, if at all. Noss (1996b) calls us to load our backpacks with field guides and keys and go out to learn about nature. This may be possible in North America and few sites in the tropics where field guides and keys exist; however it is not the case in most tropical places where the lack of basic information makes harder to do field research. In the field of conservation biology, knowledge of natural history is critical in that we need some basic information about the species we want to preserve.

Why are naturalists dying off? In a recent seminar I listened as two colleagues argued that Ph.D. dissertations could not be about natural history because it was not “hard science” (I had the hardest time trying to think of what “soft science” might be). I started wondering whether these days we would grant a Ph.D. to someone for a work like that of Alexander von Humboldt, I believe many people would agree. Then we must think if work like that of Humboldt, or Archie Carr, or Dan Janzen is still needed in the tropics and places where the high diversity of species is both highly unknown and increasingly endangered; again I believe many people would agree with it. Then, who is going to do it, if we do not acknowledge it as a science? Hikers and nature lovers with little scientific training and little commitment to objectivity? (Now, this would be some kind of soft science). Who is going to provide the basic information to test models? Where is the so called hard science going to feed on? Testing models of sexual selection with fruit flies is possible because we know what they eat and how to breed them. The only way we can continue doing some “hard science” is by learning some basic information about the species we are going to test.

A good part of the difference between natural history and model testing is a difference in attitude. When we are trying to do field work with little time and money, with a tight schedule in which we need to fit a heavy field season; and while trying to accomplish several goals and test several hypotheses at once we have little time to sit and contemplate the whole picture. By learning from nature without the pretext of necessarily predicting it, a naturalist is in good position to detect and understand the epiphenomenas and emergent properties of the system that might go beyond a set of hypothesis being tested.

As I understand, natural history is both: a solid science and exceedingly needed. If I see a frog eating a bug I know it is a fact, it happened. It is hence, rock-hard knowledge and not dependent on premises or assumptions which can change its validity with new trends or new interpretations of the biological models. The number of eggs that an iguana lays or the different twigs that the gnatcatcher uses to build the its nest is first-class information; therefore, non-perishable scientific knowledge that we still need to collect; if we want to have the information we need for conservation.

Bowen and Bass (1996) explain how trends in biology change. "A description of the herpetofauna of Florida" by Archie Carr was considered a dissertation in 1936, while in current times it would not be acceptable. Natural history teaches us about flora and fauna while model testing and laboratory experimentation teach us about processes and systems. We have collected some natural history data, and begun developing models and testing theories based on it; but have we learned all that we need? Should we use the information collected from the few species we have studied to extrapolate to all the organisms yet unknown? In certain contexts someone could answer with a "yes" to this question, but in conservation biology “yes” is not an option. For those who are concerned about biodiversity, that awkward species that falls beyond the 95 percent confidence interval might be the one that makes the difference. That species we need to protect might be the 20th one that our 0.05-science tends to ignore. It is interesting how we can acknowledge the importance of diversity in the genetic make-up of a population for conservation, but we overlook the importance of diversity in the sources of scientific knowledge. The claim that we only need one way to do science is no better than the claim that we only need to preserve one type of forest or one ecosystem. We realize that a population with no genetic variability is doomed to extinction, yet we seem to ignore that science without diversity is equally doomed to fail.

I certainly do not deny the importance of modeling and computer work, however it should not replace natural history. Both approaches are not mutually exclusive; they are actually very compatible. Model testing must be preceded by natural history research, and conservation biology needs both of them. The growth of science should not be about replacing and discarding original sources of knowledge, but about adding new ones and orchestrating them wisely. Noss invites us to spend more time studying natural history, yet I take his point a step further to state it as a need, an invaluable science, especially if we are to build solid management programs to conserve what diversity remains.

LITERATURE CITED Bowen B. W. and A. L. Bass. 1996. Are naturalist dying off? Conservation Biology 10: 923-924.

Noss, R. F. 1996a. The naturalist are dying off. Conservation Biology 10: 1-3. Noss R. F. 1996b. Are naturalist dying off? Conservation Biology 10: 927.