Natural History Upgrade
Struggling to survive in the twenty-first century, naturalists might take a page from their own playbook: evolve, adapt—and start using technology to woo people back to nature.
By Richard Conniff
People who work in the natural world often get asked how on Earth they came to devote their lives to gastropods, or ground beetles, or whatever other species happens to have found its way into their hearts. What the questioners generally mean is that becoming a naturalist is a little enviable, but also odd. As kids, they may have dreamed of becoming Jane Goodall. Then they forgot, setting it aside as a childish thing and becoming plumbers or investment bankers instead.
This would not ordinarily be so terrible. We need plumbers and maybe investment bankers, too. But lately, without realizing it, we also seem to have set aside nature itself.
We like to imagine ourselves as active and outdoorsy. But the reality is that hiking, backpacking, camping, and fishing have all declined sharply over the past 30 years, as have visits to U.S. National Parks and other public lands. The trend is particularly ominous among American children, who now spend fewer than seven minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play—and seven hours a day in front of an electronic screen.
But technology may be too easy a scapegoat. Naturalists at a workshop on the topic that I recently attended showed little appetite for technology-bashing. On the contrary, much of the conversation was about how technology can draw people back to the natural world. And the general consensus was that naturalists themselves need to change if they hope for natural history to thrive in this distracted new world.
The workshop sponsor, the Natural History Network (naturalhistorynetwork.org), is a new group dedicated to “reawakening human connections with the natural world.” The participants were mostly people who teach natural history or otherwise earn a living as naturalists. As we looked around the room, one target for change was immediately apparent: we were exclusively white, in a nation where whites will cease to be a majority just 30 years from now. And we were largely middle-aged or older, the same dwindling-party demographic that worries the Sierra Club (where the average member is 60 or older) and The Nature Conservancy (65-plus). “The arrogance of asking somebody to come to us isn’t working,” one workshop participant declared. “We have to find ways to go to them.”
Hispanics, for instance, often get ignored by conservationists but typically display greater environmental concern on surveys than other ethnic groups, including whites. Fishermen and hunters sometimes face open disdain, though their shared interest in good habitat ought to make them a natural affinity group. And whatever they may think about the origin of species, certain fundamentalist Christian groups take as strong a position against climate change as any conventional environmentalist.
Reaching these nontraditional audiences means learning to think and talk differently. (Sometimes, another workshop participant suggested, it’s better just to sit quietly and listen). Moral superiority does not play well, nor does the long lament—the dirge-like recitation of human population growth, climate change, habitat destruction, and loss of species. These are clearly critical issues that need to be addressed. But as with warnings about what to do in the event of nuclear accident, people have trouble paying attention after line two. Moreover, the endlessly repeated message that nature is dead or dying just encourages people to step back from the natural world, the way they sometimes distance themselves from a friend with a terminal disease. It’s a form of emotional self-preservation.
“So much of environmental work tends to be based on fear rather than love,” said Tom Fleischner, an organizer of the workshop who teaches conservation biology at Prescott College in Arizona. Fear can, of course, get people motivated about the environment. But that’s often for only one issue, one neighborhood, or one period of time. By contrast, “Natural history is the process of falling in love with the world. That’s a very powerful thing.” What he means by “natural history” isn’t a dusty business practiced by experts in the back rooms of museums. It doesn’t require a high-school diploma, much less a PhD. In fact, it’s open to anybody who likes to look at living things and puzzle out how they work. Giving people the means to do that, preferably early in life, is the best way—the deepest way, Fleischner argued—to reconnect them to nature. The trick is to take down the barriers that keep them out.
Scientific names, for instance, are basic tools of natural history. But they can also seem like a private language for naturalists. “We need to think about what there is in natural history for all those people who don’t want to learn names or buy field guides,” said Kent Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “I’m married to an artist who loves natural history, but it’s all about color and light. There are a lot of people like that.”
So how to reach them? An ingenious contest sponsored by British newspaper The Guardian, together with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, invites entrants to give evocative “common” names to species now known only by their scientific names. Introducing this year’s contest, author Richard Mabey acknowledged the importance of scientific names. But he went on to write, “Common names are a kind of time capsule, a record of the powers of observation and literary inventiveness of ordinary people. They log resemblances, uses, sounds, mythic associations, smells, seasonal appearances, kids’ games, superstitions, habitats. They’re witty, concise, evocative, sometimes even satirical.” Thus contest winners have turned Megapenthes lugens into the Queen’s executioner beetle and brought Xerocomus bubalinus to life as the Ascot hat mushroom. The aim is to get participants—artists, schoolchildren, and maybe even molecular biologists—to look at the animals in question, perhaps for the first time. It is also easier for most people to care about the fate of St. John’s jellyfish than about the almost-unpronounceable Lucernariopsis cruxmelitensis.
But the problem is not limited to scientific names. Professional naturalists inadvertently shut people out even when they think they are speaking plain English. For instance, “biodiversity” may seem like a quick way of stating a big idea. But in a recent British opinion poll, people asked to define the word often answered that it was a new brand of laundry soap. Speaking more plainly—for instance, talking about how many kinds of plants and animals live in a place—doesn’t mean dumbing down the conversation; it’s about making it less abstract and more specific, which is after all the essence of natural history.
Likewise, environmental policymakers have lately latched onto the phrase “ecosystem services” with the idea that they can sell conservation more readily by demonstrating that nature provides important material benefits such as flood control and crop pollination. But this is not a phrase that stirs the soul, and it often leads away from—not toward—natural history. “It’s all about trees, but not which trees,” said Redford. It’s about one function, such as carbon sequestration, rather than about how a community of plants and animals lives. Likewise, ecologists often talk about a particular animal group as “a good system” for testing some hypothesis or another, leading one workshop participant to exclaim, “They’re not systems! They’re birds.”
Technology, on the other hand, can lead people back into natural history. In some cases, it’s literally about which tree and which bird. Let’s say you’re curious about a handsome old maple in your neighborhood, but you’re unsure whether it’s a black or sugar maple. With a smartphone app called iNaturalist, you take snapshots of relevant features—leaves, flowers, bark—and zap them off. Other users browsing through the site then get back to you with likely identifications, often narrowing down the possibilities over the course of a series of comments.
Other citizen-scientist apps focus on one taxonomic group or one place. For instance, the new “Batphone” app (technically, it’s called iBats) allows users to record the sounds of bats with the help of a cheap, ultrasonic microphone. The recordings, tagged with their geographic locations, get uploaded to a database where specialized software can identify any of 900 species worldwide. And in Kenya, the Mara Predator Project has come up with a technological cure for the tendency of tourists in webbed vests to snap off countless shots without ever actually “seeing” the animals in front of them. (I call this “wildlife photographer fantasy syndrome.”) The project asks tourists to upload their lion photos to a database—and also to identify and age the individual lions in their photos with the help of a field guide to ear markings, mane length, and other key features. It makes the photographers think about what they’re seeing; later, they get an email response letting them know whether they got it right. Additionally, conservationists get a handy tool for charting home ranges and population trends.
At the Natural History Network workshop, though, most of the excitement was about iNaturalist, and it felt like the giddy way Ivy League kids used to talk during the early days of Facebook. One day at lunch, Josh Tewksbury, who teaches at the University of Washington, sent off a picture and, to his delight, got an identification back just four minutes later. As with Facebook, the social dynamic quickly kicks in, with everyone wanting to rack up as many good observations as possible, preferably with accurate identifications. “I started using iNaturalist four days ago,” said Tewksbury, “and within a day I was picking up field guides I haven’t used in years so I don’t get yelled at by my friends.”
Apps such as iNaturalist cleverly exploit people’s technological infatuation to get them back outside. The smartphone becomes a tool to resurrect their curiosity about the natural world—and even get them actively contributing to the science. In the past, professionals often dismissed any claim by an uncredentialed naturalist to have seen a rare species or one that was out of its normal range: “You only think you saw a bog turtle. What you saw was a spotted turtle.” Now the amateur can post the photographic evidence, complete with geotagging. “That old barrier—I am an expert and you are not—is starting to erode because of these technologies,” said Tewksbury.
Technology is also changing the way the professionals do science, and Tewksbury believes that will help make natural history rebound in the twenty-first century. Physicists, chemists, and astronomers, he said, have always had to work in teams and share their data because of the expensive equipment they require; collaboration has enabled them to do Big Science. Naturalists, on the other hand, “can do a heckuva lot with a tape measure. So we don’t have to get along to publish.” As a result, in one random selection of National Science Foundation grants for ecological studies, the vast majority of the data remained “dark” or unpublished; compare this to “dark data” levels thought to be near zero in physics, astronomy, and molecular biology. “And dark data dies,” said Tewksbury. But granting agencies increasingly require publication of data. The new practice of logging observations on public databases with a smartphone will force the change in any case. Amateur reports on when flowers bloom in different places may sound like small, even mini, science. But when you can analyze how the timing changes from year to year, it offers a much more detailed picture of climate change than any satellite image—and at far lower cost. Suddenly natural history looks like Big Science, too.
I came away from the workshop thinking fondly about a story told by a sea-bird biologist named Julia Parrish. She’s a college professor (University of Washington again) and, at first glance, looks the part—thin, with a long neck, pale, freckled skin, reddish hair pulled back, and the corners of her mouth drawn slightly down, as if you are about to earn a B plus in Life 101 if you don’t shape up now. Asked to give a talk on sea birds at a venue in the coastal city of Everett, Washington, she arrived at the address on the appointed day and found herself in a dive inhabited by “people who at 4 p.m. had obviously had more than their first drink.” She was starting to think C minus.
But at the appointed hour, about 20 people gathered around, drinking beer and eating nachos, and Parrish got up on the dingy carpeted stage normally reserved for bar bands doing covers of Journey’s greatest hits. Parrish talked about sea birds, and one man in the audience, a retired gillnet fisherman, mentioned a study he had helped work on years before. It turned out Parrish had designed that study, and from that point on, everything was copacetic. People were genuinely interested in her work. They asked good questions. Their inner Jane Goodalls, that childhood sense of being in love with the world, inched back toward the surface. At the end, the bartender announced that he had “something to say about natural history.” Just a week earlier, a mountain beaver had inexplicably made its way into the city, ending up in this very bar. It ended badly for the beaver, and the bartender went to his refrigerator to retrieve the evidence. Then Parrish and her audience gathered around to commune over the cadaver, sipping their beers and chatting about sea birds.
Maybe it wasn’t quite T.H. Huxley delivering his lectures to working men on the new science of evolution. It certainly wasn’t the contemplation of nature at its prettiest or most perfect. But as an instance of how to reach out and make natural history matter for ordinary people who deserve to know, it was a very nice start.
– Richard Conniff’s articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and other publications. He is the author of many books, including The Natural History of the Rich, Spineless Wonders, and Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time. His latest book, The Species Seekers, comes out in paperback in November 2011.