30 June 2012

The 21st Century Naturalist (Or What the HMS Beagle Project Means to Me)

Guest post by Rob Viens, science teacher and current Dean of the Science Division at Bellevue College in Washington State. See here for Rob's earlier post about facing illness and fear in the jungle.

For the past few months I have been following Darwin's voyage on the Beagle through the daily entries in his personal diary and field notebooks – trying to get to know him as a person and relive his first encounters with the natural environment of the New World.  
Down House/English Heritage recreation of Charles Darwin at work in his cabin.
Photo Lisa Taylor
Among other things, I have come to the conclusion that being a naturalist may be a lost art and, more importantly, that the world needs naturalists like Charles Darwin more then ever before. And although having more full-fledged, full-time naturalists would be ideal, I think it would benefit all scientists to have a certain degree of training as a naturalist. Why, you might ask?  Well, because naturalists are a particularly unique type of field scientist that can (1) make good observations, (2) integrate many different fields of study, and (3) share their discoveries by writing about the natural world. Let me elaborate.

First – as others have noted, Darwin was a fantastic observer of the natural world, a skill that is particularly well honed in any good naturalist. Observations are the cornerstone of good science (along with good questions, as Rachel Slatyer noted in an earlier blog). They are the foundation of good interpretations – so if the observations are bad, the hypotheses are meaningless.  Placing a scientist in an explored region with only a pen and paper requires them to really think about how to observe and how to use descriptive writing to paint a picture.  I like to emphasize this with my students and really try to have them describe things in as much detail as possible.

Some of Darwin's finch sketches, reproduced in the beautiful blog Venetian Red,
wherein two artists turn the tables and explore ideas through art.
Second – naturalists have the ability to synthesise many different disciplines. The 20th century saw scientists become more and more specialized.  Today, for example, there are biologists who specialize in the A-G-C's of genetics without ever examining a "living" organism. Many of the global environmental issues of today require us to take a much more interdisciplinary look at a problem if we ever hope to come to a solution.

In this regard Darwin was a exceptional naturalist.  Don't get me wrong - he made mistakes (which is OK in science) - but I never cease to be amazed at the range of subjects Darwin wrote about during his travels. Geology, of course, was a central theme, as are biology and ecology, but he also hypothesised about meteorology, astronomy, oceanography, chemistry, and many other subfields of science. His attention to detail meant that his hypotheses were often on the mark.  

St Paul's Rocks today - still not a typical ocean island.
Photo John Vergari, Wikimedia Commons
One example of this came in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where he recognised that St. Paul's Rocks was not typical ocean island but instead was made of the rare rock serpentinite (which we now know is a piece of the mantle). This is amazing considering that he was a 23-yr old with just a few months of formal training in geology (via Adam Sedgwick).

Third – a true naturalist is more than a scientist (and I mean that not as an insult to scientists J). They are writers and often poets or artists, and have the ability to share the wonder of nature with the rest of the world. Ed Abbey (not a scientist, but a good observer in his own right) once wrote:

"Any good poet, in our age at least, must begin with the scientific view of the world; and any scientist worth listening to must be something of a poet, must possess the ability to communicate to the rest of us the sense of love and wonder at what his work discovers."    

(from Abbey's essay Come on In, excerpted by Ranger Kathryn Burke of Arches National Park, a geological wonderland Darwin might have loved)

Darwin had this skill, too. I'm only about five months into his diary/journals (I'm trying not to read ahead so that I can relive the trip in real time) and I can already appreciate Darwin's poetic writing style, and his ability to infuse his excitement into his words. Take, for example, his first impression of he New World Forest upon arriving in Brazil in February 1832:

“The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind. —if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over. — if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future & more quiet pleasure will arise. — I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another Sun illumines everything I behold.” 
(Darwin's Beagle Diary, 28 February 1832)

The Brazilian forest as Darwin experienced it, from a painting he cited.
Forêt vierge du Brésil, Charles de Clarac
What this all boils down to, is that before making the trip on the Beagle, Darwin had the potential to be a great scientist – he certainly had an eye for detail and loved to collect and catalog things. But what really made him a great scientist was having the opportunity to hone those skills as a naturalist on the voyage of the Beagle.  There is nothing like being in the field to open your eyes (and ears and nose) to the details and relationships among the living and nonliving world.  Reconstructing the Beagle, and setting sail to explore the natural word, has the potential to inspire new ideas and train new scientists with the skills of a naturalist.

So what does the HMS Beagle Project mean to me?  It is a chance to re-explore the world through the eyes of a naturalist – absorbing the whole of nature and synthesizing the "natural sciences" into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a chance to rekindle the role of the naturalist and train a new generation of scientists to be able to observe, hypothesise and solve problems in a holistic way.  It is a chance to share the beauty and splendour of the natural world through art and poetry.  When I think about how important this trip was to Darwin, and the legacy it has left us, I can only wonder what having another opportunity to explore the world via a 21st century Beagle could mean for the future.  I hope some day to know the answer.


This reproduction of Darwin's Tree of Life diagram is from a Levittown, PA high school biology website, worth a visit in itself to see how dedicated teachers are getting science across to young people.
As a newcomer to the project, I'm curious to know - what does the HMS Beagle Project mean to you?

2 comments:

Rachel Slatyer said...

Great post Rob! I completely agree with everything you say. I've just finished reading a book about Darwin, Wallace, Hooker and Huxley and I was left in awe of the breadth of their knowledge. I think there's something very special about being on a sailing ship (as you can probably tell from my previous posts and one to come!) and for me, the Beagle Project is, like for you, a chance to re-explore the world and to take the time to explore it properly - you could visit the same places by aeroplane, but it wouldn't be the same. Travelling by sea means that you have the chance to observe all the gradual changes along the way - and perhaps to better identify areas that are not what you were expecting. It also combines the three things that excite me the most - sailing, exploring and finding out about stuff!

Rachel said...

Great post Rob! I completely agree with everything you say. I've just finished reading a book about Darwin, Wallace, Hooker and Huxley and I was left in awe of the breadth of their knowledge. I think there's something very special about being on a sailing ship (as you can probably tell from my previous posts and one to come!) and for me, the Beagle Project is, like for you, a chance to re-explore the world and to take the time to explore it properly - you could visit the same places by aeroplane, but it wouldn't be the same. Travelling by sea means that you have the chance to observe all the gradual changes along the way - and perhaps to better identify areas that are not what you were expecting. It also combines the three things that excite me the most - sailing, exploring and finding out about stuff!