That is the lovely face of Olive, the three-and-a-half legged turtle. She is scouring the horizon looking for her next meal, which is normally delivered right in front of her beaked nose by her handmaids, my two youngest daughters--the youngest of whom is holding the camera, patiently attempting to get the most stunning shots for a photo contest. As you might have already suspected, I'm the one who took the picture, which explains why it is somewhat blurry around her fearsome jowls--excuse me, mandibles.
That is Natural History, a true science that is all too far on the road to extinction.
Natural History is a delightfully old-fashioned word that means something like this: "The deeply human activity of going out into the woods, fields, rivers, swamps, or even backyards, and actually looking for a long time at things that are alive, and doing it for no other reason than that natural things are peculiarly fascinating."
Note that this is a science for both the amateur, the expert, and everything in between. I'm a happy amateur--hence the somewhat blurry photo, and the fact that I had to look up the name of this type of turtle, the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina). My children surpass me in knowing such things, which is why I'm an even happier amateur Natural Historian.
Natural History was the kind of thing the very best scientists, as well as the most enthusiastic amateurs, used to do. Trekking out into nature and spending long hours in observing, note-taking, sketching, and later, photographing was the province of both the acclaimed academic naturalist and the earnest novice. Such ventures were all the rage from about the mid-18th century, through the 19th, and up into the mid-20th. Real human beings enraptured by the study of actual living things in their 100% bona fide natural environment.
So, why talk about Natural History hovering near death? As Jenny Frazer has rightly noted in her "Natural History is Dying, and We are the Losers," the study of actual living things--birds, bats, bees, trees, fish--is no longer taken seriously by biologists. For quite some time ,since about the mid-20th century, biology has been all about DNA, swirling things around in test tubes, and as technology became even more overwhelming, manipulating models, data, and conjectures on computers.
Biologists no longer go out into nature as Natural Historians. As a lamentable and obvious consequence, they know very "little about life outside their labs." You can get a Ph.D. in biology without ever venturing outside, and in fact, most Ph.D.'s do just that because almost all graduate schools in biology have (brace thyself) dropped any Natural History course requirements wherein students would go out into nature and observe living things in their actual habitat.
Too messy, too many bugs, too many lawyers suing if something happens to students, too much time consumed in hours of observation, and what's the point anyway if every living thing can be reduced in all its wonderful wildness to particular strings of chemical combinations on the DNA. Hence biology has been reduced to chemistry, and chemistry can be done in the lab, thereby ensuring (in mammologist Michael Mares words) that trained, degree-certified biologists "are sublimely ignorant of the diversity and complexity of nature."
I discovered the effects of this type of education long before I fully understood the causes. We home schooled our children, and for most of the time, we lived out in the sticks. Our kids therefore got to know the varied intricacies of nature way deeper than I--a product of public school coupled with endless hours of stoopidifying TV--ever did or ever will. They spent their endless hours in the creek and the woods.
Well, when it came time to study biology more formally--i.e., getting an official biology textbook--I noticed a very strange fact. The first and biggest chunk of the book was about the chemistry of DNA and microbiology, with a quick sweep of the most general consideration of living creatures tacked on the back end. As far as "official biology" was concerned, there was nothing much of interest above the chemistry of the cell. A casual wave toward a smattering of animals at the end was sufficient.
Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't biology be about--first and foremost--the detailed observations of living things?
The answer is yes, and yes. But it will take a seismic upheaval and reconstruction of what we mean by "science." I will not drag the reader through the historical details in this post--although I'm tempted to do it in a future book--but our current reductionism in biology is the result of a long-standing reductionism in philosophy. If you want to find the culprits who have nearly killed Natural History, you'd have to go back to the 17th century and read the works of Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, both of whom were convinced that what appears to be alive, what certainly seems to be a living, breathing creature moving marvelously under its own volition, can be reduced to a sub-visual, atomic reactions.
Real science, so these first materialists claimed, means ignoring the mere appearance of a living thing (which is ultimately unreal), and uncovering the atomic mechanical operations that are the true causes of its structures and diverse motions. In defining real science this way, Descartes and Hobbes, set in motion a revolution that, centuries later, ends with the removal of the study of living things from science. Thus, we ultimately have them to thank for what would seem to be a contradiction: biology, the science of not studying living things.