More on the plight of the natural historian

I am a natural historian, and yes, I believe I can say I am an entomologist. At work, in a museum sitting in a room filled with an incalculable amount of invaluable materials, I frequently reflect on the history and philosophy of the career path in taxonomy and natural history I have chosen.

Aristotle had outlined five rules for the effective classification of organisms in the 4th century B.C., rules that resonate throughout the methods used today. (1) Organisms should be classified by many similarities and differences, not just a few, and should be on the basis of parts and activities related to reproduction, locomotion, respiration, perception and digestion. (2) He suggested that categories should sub-divide and not cross-divide a broader grouping (these controversies still exist and persist as a philosophical plague). (3) Classifications should be by ‘essential’ characteristics not ‘accidental’ ones, i.e. feathers define a sparrow as a bird, just because both sparrows and bald eagles have brown and white feathers, this does not make them the same bird. (4) Classifications should be biocentric not anthropocentric, meaning organisms should not be categorized based on their usefulness to humans because this provides no explanation of the natural history, physical or functional characteristics. (5) Lastly, he distinguished between the uses of continuous characters as opposed to discrete characters.

Nowhere is there mention of a creator, of some predetermined grand design. These ideas held fairly strongly until the 17th century where a certain John Ray had become a rather vocal proponent of ‘natural theology.’ The idea that studying the organisms created by god, as described in genesis, provided insight into the creator’s wisdom and plan, as the organisms seemed to be designed for various explicit purposes. This, my friends, is where the evolutionary biology struggle began. Can you imagine the acceptance of Darwin’s ideas had Ray not led this dominant school of thought? Instead, the great voyages of exploration of the 17th,18th and 19th centuries, though fueled with a desire to find and classify new organisms around the world, were justified through natural theology. By the time Darwin published, the world was not receptive to his ideas. Aristotle, Linnaeus, and even Lamarck would have recognized the value of his observations and reasoning immediately.

The days of the natural historian were not over at the turn of the twentieth century. Gathering ‘descriptive’ data on species is more important now than ever, given the pace of natural habitat destruction around the world. As ecology has matured, it has shifted from descriptions of organisms and communities to a more rigorous, experimental approach. However, it is still essential to understand the natural history of a system before hypotheses can be created and experiments can be performed. This is another reason I’m so passionate about the study I’m involved with, it is focused on the descriptions of the organisms and community.