Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Natural History – as valuable as Biomedicine

Occasionally, one comes across something that touches a nerve. That happened to me when reading a section of the paper entitled Natural History's Place in Science and Society by Joshua J. Tewksbury and his 16 co-authors [1]. They wrote:

The stature of natural history within many academic institutions will depend on its capacity to generate revenue and contribute to academic currencies used to measure the success of individuals and programs. In research-oriented universities, these currencies are typically large grants, publications in high-impact-factor journals, and public recognition for the institution. Disciplines that cannot compete in these currencies will typically be given little attention in critical decisions surrounding hiring, promotion, course offerings, degree programs, buildings and infrastructure, and institutional direction. Even in institutions at which the focus on teaching is more prevalent, disciplines such as natural history can be marginalized because of the relatively high per-student cost of field- and collection-based courses and because of these courses' low enrollments relative to those in higher profile disciplines.

As a proud Emeritus Professor of Biology in a World-leading University, I concur fully with this statement. In research-led universities, there is often a disjunction between academic research and teaching and, as the authors point out, it is the former that is used in hiring and reward. Courses in Biology necessarily include basic studies but, instead of introducing students to Natural History, Behaviour and Diversity, the majority are in Cellular and Molecular Biology, reflecting the dramatic change that has come in the subject over the last forty years. We now have a mechanistic approach, like that of physics or chemistry, believing that understanding how genes work will result in our understanding how organisms work. Unfortunately, it is much more complex than that, but there is the possibility of making some great discoveries along the way. One organism dominates above all others as a subject for study and that is Homo sapiens. Even organisms like fruit flies, or nematode worms, are used as proxies for humans when investigating the effect of gene expression: the wide diversity of plants and animals is considered of much lower importance.

I was so happy to teach in areas of Biology in which I had an interest, but no research experience, and where I was able to be a Natural Historian without being frowned upon by colleagues. I taught courses in Animal Form and Function to second-year students and contributed lectures on the interactions between predators and prey to a first-year class. Both were optional, but all students had to study Cellular and Molecular Biology and all had to study Chemistry. To look at the interactions of predators and prey, we began with predictive models and then branched out into the "arms race", with adaptations of predators to increase their catching efficiency and adaptations of prey to avoid attack. I organised examples into different categories and we then let rip. While the models were interesting, there was no question that talking about the various modifications shown by animals (and by plants, as I took a liberal approach to the term "prey") was what we all really enjoyed. I took a similar approach in Animal Form and Function, beginning with fluid dynamics and then showing the ways that animals move in water, on land and in the air. I also described different categories of feeding mechanism and we again looked at examples in various categories. Both sections were taught in an evolutionary context, so we began with the more primitive examples and moved through a spectrum leading to the more advanced. These courses were great to plan, and to teach, and we were able to make interesting observations during practical classes; predator-prey interactions being observed on a field course taught by some of my colleagues. On that course, students were also able to study plants and animals in their natural environment.

Tewksbury et al. [1] state:

Urbanization and a lack of exposure to nature, changes in affluence, a reduction of unstructured time for children, and increased television and computer use have all been implicated in the reduced public awareness of nature.

If any of that applied to my students, our course material certainly opened their eyes and I hope that they remembered enough to be able to pass on the information and to keep up their interest by making their own observations. I think that Natural History is an important part of a university degree in Biology, but others may argue that there are no jobs in this area, or very few anyway, and that we should be training students solely for careers. Informed professors in US universities have told me that  Biology students include a large cohort who are very interested in the subject, but wish to go on to study Medicine. That's back to the concentration on H. sapiens, and Biomedicine is now a dominating part of Biology teaching, as so many academics work in this area and it is perceived that there are many job opportunities in the field. Some small number of students, do go on to have careers in Natural History, or in Ecology, but what of all those who take Biology degrees and then have careers in quite different areas. Is there then a benefit in learning about Natural History?

No-one questions the importance of studying History, Philosophy or Literature and there are a host of subjects that provide intellectual rewards for those that pursue them. Graduates with degrees in these subjects benefit from their studies, but they are hardly vocational in being a direct training for a job. To be sure, there are professional historians, philosophers, reviewers, writers, etc., and there are teachers and professors of these subjects, but the majority of graduates will be working in quite different fields, while using all sorts of approaches they have learned; often retaining their interest for relaxation and for enhancing their world view. As the great liberal scientific discipline, Natural History deserves to be highlighted alongside these subjects and to form a central part of Biology degree programmes, even for those whose main interest is in Medicine and its related subjects. After all, it has been shown that walking in Nature is good for human health [2] and it can be argued that prevention of illness, and palliative care, are as important as drugs and surgery. How much better if these solitary walks, or those in company, also provide a chance to explore the Romance of Natural History [3].

Given the public lack of interest in the environment, and the organisms it contains, one hopes that students of Natural History will remember enough of their enthusiasms to make informed decisions when Nature is threatened. Unquestionably, they will also have something to pass on to their children and to those around them who are interested in such things. Can the same be said for those following Modern Biology and Biomedicine? Probably, the answer is "yes", but there is now a lack of balance and almost a belief that Biology applied to Medicine is going to provide answers to all ills. It is not, and much biomedical research is likely to be of little significance in finding cures for illnesses and for allowing healthy ageing. All the resources thrown in that direction show an uncritical approach and it is surprising that this extends to university administrators, academics and politicians throughout the World. Of course, money cannot be made from Natural History in the way that it can be from Biomedicine and the Pharmaceutical Industry, but isn't it time for a fresh approach? Are University Heads and senior academics wearing something analogous to the Emperor's New Clothes?

On a positive note, Tewksbury et al. [1] suggest a mechanism to help University administrators find a better path:

The vitality of natural history will depend on the willingness of professionals in the natural sciences to self-identify as natural historians, to teach natural history, and to articulate the importance of their expertise across a wide range of disciplines, through lectures, conferences, professional societies, and public talks. Those professionals who embrace the revitalization of natural history within and beyond their institutions will lead and define the field for the twenty-first century. This is not an easy path for early-career academics, but it is an essential shift for established academics because they can use their tenure to validate and promote the importance of natural history within and beyond their programs.

To facilitate the resurgence of Natural History, I suggest three mechanisms that may help in Biology Departments (and elsewhere):

1. Income obtained from student fees, or supplied by governments for student education, must be spent on teaching and on facilities for students (it is recognised that a small percentage is also necessary for support services and for administration, other than that related to teaching).

2. Research grants should only be given to those less than, say, 40 years-old. This will encourage new thinking to become widespread; it will reduce the impact of senior researchers on the development of ideas; and it will empower younger researchers in developing their careers. Preferably, there should be more grants and they should be smaller. Large capital schemes could be co-operative, or sponsored by Industry, Government Departments or by endowments. Senior aademics have an invaluable role to play here in supporting pools of younger researchers and ensuring that experience counts for something....

3. Senior and Tenured Academics should be encouraged to teach areas outside their discipline and the freshness that they bring from their preparation for teaching, will make for an enthusiastic approach.

Of all the sub-disciplines of Biology, Natural History is likely to benefit most from these changes and students will be provided with something that they will keep for life. It will provide a better perspective on the position of humans as organisms that are part of a wonderfully diverse World.

[1] Joshua J. Tewksbury and 16 co-authors (2014) Natural History's Place in Science and Society. BioScience 64: 300-310.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The decline of Natural History

In an article in BioScience, Joshua Tewksbury and 16 co-authors point out the decline in the study of Natural History in Colleges and Universities in the USA, at a time when we are in strong need of this discipline. They conclude [1]:

A renewed focus on the natural history of organisms is central to the growth of basic and use-inspired research and is also a critical step toward sustainable management and toward providing increased predictive capacities and improved outcomes across disciplines as diverse as health, agriculture, and conservation. However, natural history in the twenty-first century will look different from that of the nineteenth as this fundamental knowledge is applied to new frontiers and as new technologies are used in the practice of natural history. Despite these differences, however, the importance of natural history to science and society remains timeless.

The article prompted Jennifer Frazer to make a post on The Artful Amoeba blog in Scientific American with the emotive title: "Natural History is Dying, and We Are All the Losers" [2]. She writes:

As a child, I had access to something that few children do today: nature. I remember roaming the big yard and woods around our rural Tennessee home solo at four, five, six years old. That quiet time wandering, listening, and looking among the loblolly pines and playing in the red dirt planted a love in me of nature that didn't germinate until years later.

While she would have liked to have studied Natural History at University, it was not available as a subject in its own right and she bemoans the lack of Natural History training among contemporary teachers (the lack of knowledge also applies to parents, I think). Frazer continues:

When kids do not grow up around natural history, they become adults who are not only ignorant of natural history, but who do not care about nature and view it as disposable and unimportant.

In schools, "environmental education" has often replaced natural history, with its emphasis on general structures and concepts like food webs or trophic levels.

However, she points out that any child using a microscope has:

..access to a fascinating universe of mites, springtails, and nematodes easily viewable in a bit of compost or soil.. .. and is a far more engaging experience than mindlessly flipping through photos in an exhibit or randomly pushing buttons.  

This need for first-hand experience is a point well made and it is not only important for recognising the diversity of Natural History, but also how each organism affects other organisms and the processing of organic and inorganic matter. Natural History then becomes more than scientific study and includes something very rewarding, giving us a sense of wonder at all the life around us, of which we are such a dominant part. Harking back to the Nineteenth Century heyday of Natural History, it is what Philip Henry Gosse called the Romance of Natural History. Gosse was fascinated by all the living things around him and made a special study of aquatic organisms, observed using aquaria or in small dishes viewed under a microscope. This is what Henry Gosse wrote in the Preface to The Romance of Natural History [3]:

There are more ways than one of studying natural history. There is Dr Dryasdust's way; which consists of mere accuracy of definition and differentiation; statistics as harsh and dry as the skins and bones in the museum where it is studied. There is the field-observer's way; the careful and conscientious accumulation and record of facts bearing on the life-history of the creatures; statistics as fresh wand bright as the forest or meadow where they are gathered in the dewy morning. And there is the poet's way; who looks at nature through a glass peculiarly his own; the æsthetic aspect, which deals, not with statistics, but with the emotions of the human mind,-surprise, wonder, terror, revulsion, admirations, love, desires, and so forth,-which are made energetic by the contemplation of creatures around him.

It would be a pity if we lost sight of the latter when studying the Natural History of animals, plants and micro-organisms, as it is an aspect that clearly excites our interest in much of what we see around us. However, organisms need to be seen in their natural surroundings or, if collected for close examination, then viewed with a lens or microscope to enhance observations.


Of course, many wonders of Natural History cannot be seen unless one travels to other countries and, failing that, we become dependent on television, video, photographs, and electronic images to give us information. As alluded to by Jennifer Frazer, the danger is that media images can be manipulated and stacked with all the other images that we receive and often have anthropocentric commentary, or fantasy, added. That's not the Romance of Natural History and nor is it related to the science of the subject.

Sometimes, it is possible to feel that the decline of Natural History has come with the burgeoning of received information through various media, yet it is vital that we continue its study, both formally in schools and universities, and as an absorbing hobby for all of us. Natural History is something in which we should all have a first-hand interest and embracing the Romance, as well as the other aspects, brings both satisfaction and a clearer understanding of the position of humans on Earth. Long live the spirit of Henry Gosse for showing us the way.

[1] Joshua J. Tewksbury and 16 co-authors (2014) Natural History's Place in Science and Society. BioScience 64: 300-310.

[3] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) The Romance of Natural History. London, J. Nisbet and Co.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Being fooled by Bee Flies

There have been a lot of Bee Flies in our garden in the past few weeks. Their forward-pointing proboscis and hovering skills make them easy to recognise, although I admit that I used to think that they were a rather unusual type of Bumble Bee. The confusion comes from their body shape and covering of hairs, both of which make them resemble Bumble Bees, although they are in the Order Diptera (true flies) not Order Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps). 

Bee Flies in the genus Bombylius have a world-wide distribution [1], with 278 species being recognised, all with similar life histories and feeding habits [2]. Their larvae are parasitoids (parasites that kill their hosts) of the immature stages of Bumble Bees, and other solitary bees and wasps, that all produce a brood in a nest hole in the ground. Eggs are laid, or flicked into, the hole by the Bee Fly females and hatching larvae migrate to find the larvae of the host and continue development. After pupation, adult Bee Flies emerge to complete the cycle.

Both male and female Bombylius adults feed on nectar, for which their forward-pointing proboscis is well-adapted, and females also feed on pollen, which is required for the development of eggs [2]. In this foraging activity, they are effective pollinators of plants and the only cost to the plant is the production of nectar and the excess pollen that is utilised as food. Interestingly, Boesi et al. [2] write: "Foraging activities of host and parasitoid populations are seasonally (and often daily) synchronized". The resemblance between Bee Flies and their hosts thus extends to their behaviour as well as their appearance.

So, why do Bee Flies look, and behave, like Bumble Bees? Their behaviour brings them into contact with potential hosts and increases the chance of locating their nest holes, while their appearance may prevent attack during egg-laying (although this is speculation). The appearance of Bee Flies might also be explained by Batesian mimicry, deterring predators such as insectivorous birds by resembling other insects with a powerful sting. Although we don't know the explanation, their appearance, and behaviour, evolved by selection of advantageous genetic mutations long before humans first appeared, although that would be disputed by Creationists.

Whatever our views on the origins of living organisms, all humans have a tendency to view Nature from a human perspective. However, we need to be cautious of our anthropocentricity, as our perceptions may be quite different to those of other animals. Perhaps the appearance of Bee Flies is just a result of coincidence rather than the unconscious mimicry of the appearance and behaviour of Bumble Bees? That does seem unlikely, but how are we to know?

[2] Roberto Boesi, Carlo Polidori and Francesco Andrietti (2009) Searching for the right target: oviposition and feeding behavior in Bombylius Bee Flies (Diptera: Bombylidae). Zoological Studies 48: 141-150.