Why Ecology Needs Natural History

The two fields' intertwined histories show that most theoretical breakthroughs are preceded by the kind of deep observational work that has fallen out of vogue in the past half century.

Biology Ecology Natural History

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September-October 2017

Volume 105, Number 5
Page 290

DOI: 10.1511/2017.105.5.290

In March 1908 a remarkable partnership was forged that would affect the practice and teaching of field biology for more than a century.

Annie Montague Alexander, heiress to a Hawaiian sugar fortune, had trained in paleontology at the University of California. To the surprise and consternation of friends and family, Miss Alexander—as she was generally known—had participated in a number of expeditions in Alaska, the western United States, and Africa. Her experiences in the field had raised her concern over the loss of biodiversity and habitat as industrial agriculture and a growing human population transformed the western landscape. Teaming up with Joseph Grinnell, a recent Stanford University graduate who shared her passion for fieldwork, Alexander established the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley.

© Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley.

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The museum’s goal was to provide a carefully documented record of the distribution of animals across California that would serve as a reference for future biologists to assess changes in wildlife. Grinnell recognized the importance of this endeavor, saying in a 1910 article in Popular Science Monthly, “After the lapse of many years, possibly a century, the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California.”

So detailed are Alexander and Grinnell’s notes that more than a century later researchers can indeed compare the present distribution and abundance of birds and mammals across California in precise locations studied before the onset of modern development and climate change.

Unlike many patrons, who might be content to supply money or other resources so that other people can engage in studies or art, Alexander was a full participant in museum activities, collecting large numbers of animals and plants for the museum’s archives and herbarium. She reveled in fieldwork, capturing and preserving her specimens, documenting their ranges and habitats, and sending specimens and notes back to Berkeley for preservation. Grinnell was equally active in the field, directed the museum, and taught generations of students in courses that eventually crystallized as an extended course in vertebrate natural history.

Although Grinnell had died in 1939 and Alexander, in 1950, when I took this course in 1978, the spirits of both naturalists were very much alive in the emphasis on spending as much time as possible examining animals in the outdoors. Every student conducted an independent two-term research project. Half-day field trips every week were mandatory, and there was the opportunity to spend long weekends at field stations near the coast or in the mountains. Of perhaps equal importance, instructors made clear to students that we were part of something much bigger than ourselves—a science of natural history that had formed the foundation for science itself.

Ecologist Tom Fleischner of Prescott College defined natural history in a 2001 article as “a practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.” Although this definition may hint at a degree of mysticism, it also illustrates why the process of broadly based, patient observation must be valued as an essential first step in the scientific method. For early humans, an understanding of plants and animals in the landscape was not a matter of academic interest but rather of simple survival. Once the immediate demands of food and shelter were met, sufficient leisure for the study and categorization of organisms for nonutilitarian values would have been possible. Natural history began as a descriptive practice, and classification created a common language and a methodology whereby experts from different areas could compare observations and begin to formulate patterns to make predictions. In this way, natural history—and one might say science as a whole—was born.

Figure adapted from Tewksbury et al., 2014.

Like any human endeavor, science has its fashions, and natural history fell out of fashion in the 20th century. Natural historians were increasingly regarded as old-fashioned in style and out of touch with modern methodologies. Granting agencies are reluctant to fund surveys, and funding cycles make it difficult, if not impossible, to study long-lived organisms for even one generation. Ecologists are encouraged to perform a few hypothesis-driven studies with one organismal “system” and then move on, rather than take the time to develop a comprehensive natural history of a study species. No ecologist I know, myself included, is studying even the same order of organism that we researched in graduate school.

The loss of natural history expertise pervades recent trends in ecology and is at odds with ecology’s past—few students today would have the kind of field experiences I had as an undergraduate. As documented in a 2014 paper in BioScience I coauthored with Josh Tewksbury and others, the number of organism-based classes at colleges and universities has declined markedly over the past 50 years, as has the number of pages devoted to whole-organism biology and ecology in introductory texts.

Students are encouraged to spend more time indoors, conducting lab “experiments” with predetermined outcomes and running increasingly sophisticated simulations of behaviors rather than observing actual organisms in an uncontrolled context. The bias toward presenting biology as a lab science starts young. Justifiably nervous about liability issues involved in taking students outside, primary- and secondary- school teachers are also strapped for time to plan the logistics of field trips. In addition, learning standards are designed around easily quantifiable answers, and, as the country itself has become increasingly urbanized, it is harder to encounter an area devoid of the effects of human development.

Alexander was no stranger to cities, but she saw correctly that organisms needed to be studied within the landscape where they evolved. Given her adventures in the field, one feels that she might be surprised by the modern emphasis on safety and the avoidance of discomfort—the important goals for her were always to get the data, collect the specimen, and have the experience.

The Earliest Natural History

Natural history in a formal sense owes its origin to the philosopher Aristotle, who emphasized in his scientific writing what he himself had seen rather than what he had been told. By contrast, Pliny the Elder—a Roman natural philosopher whose work, Naturalis Historia, developed the concept of an encyclopedia—was a great cataloger of stories but made little effort to verify the truth of what he had been told.

Natural historians’ objects of study ranged from meteorology to geology to zoology. Because so much was new to the growing scientific community, they paid great attention to surveys, taxonomy, and the classification of variation. For much of the Middle Ages, utilitarian natural history, such as medicine and animal husbandry, was emphasized. Hampered by religious restrictions on dissection, medical studies still produced fascinating “herbals,” some of which wandered into the realm of fantasy, whereas others proved to have true pharmaceutical effects. Religious concerns often suppressed examination of cause-and-effect relationships: God created the world for human use, and it was unwise (and possibly heretical) to go further than biblical explanations.

© Museum of Vertebrate Paleontology, University of California.

There were some rebels. In the 13th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (von Hohenstaufen) gathered a remarkable array of scientists at his court and wrote what is arguably the first textbook on ornithology, largely from personal study. Unfortunately, the brief scientific renaissance that he fostered was snuffed out at his death: Dante placed him in the sixth circle of hell in his epic poem Divine Comedy, and many of the scientists that had frequented the emperor’s court were transformed in subsequent histories into wizards and warlocks, caricatured as obsessed with the transmutation of metals rather than recognized as experimental scientists.

The Rise of Natural History

The acknowledgement of the New World of the Americas and a growing trade with Africa and Asia presented challenges to a Eurocentric and Bible-focused view of nature. The ecological diversity of the new continents must have been daunting. There was plenty to survey and classify, and some sort of logical taxonomy and common language are essential ingredients of any successful science. Natural historians were in a position to provide for these needs.

Wikimedia Commons

By the 17th century, some natural historians rejected the strictly utilitarian notion of nature. In 1691 John Ray, who invented one of the first comprehensive systems of taxonomy, rejected an anthropocentric view of the world, saying,

There are infinite other creatures without this Earth, which no considerate man can think were made only for man, and have no other use.... It seems to me highly absurd and unreasonable, to think that bodies of such vast magnitude as the fix’d stars, were only made to twinkle to us.

By raising the possibility that nature might not be an anthropocentric teleology, Ray also advocates for science as an unrestricted endeavor. Although Ray and his immediate successors talked of understanding the creator through the study of creation, it is also clear that they valued knowledge for its own sake and that they thought literal interpretations of biblical texts were best left at the pulpit. The Royal Society—founded in 1660 and still one of the most important scientific organizations—elected Ray as one of its early members in 1667. The Society’s motto, Nullius in verba, or “take nobody’s word for it,” is a delightful echo of von Hohenstaufen’s remark in De Arte Venandi cum Avibus [The Art of Falconry] 400 years earlier: “Entire conviction of the truth cannot come from mere hearsay.”

Wikimedia Commons

All this change made way for the scientific epiphany that was Alexander von Humboldt. Born in Berlin, Germany, in 1769 to wealthy parents, Humboldt decided early in life to spend both his fortune and his career studying as much of the world as he could. He traveled extensively in northern South America and Mexico, visited Thomas Jefferson in Washington, DC, and journeyed across most of Russia. Everywhere he went, he combined extensive studies of botany and geology with measurements of climate, weather, and the effects of altitude on plants and animals. His climb to within a few hundred feet of the summit of Chimborazo in the Andes Mountains of what is now Ecuador established a human altitude record that lasted for a generation. More importantly, it inspired a magnificent graphic depiction of vegetation distribution in relation to elevation (as shown further below and at the very top of this web page). This map formed the centerpiece of Humboldt’s 1807 seminal book, Essay on the Geography of Plants, and also represents the beginning of true scientific biogeography.

Humboldt’s ambition was no less than to understand the universe itself. His unfinished masterpiece, Cosmos, was intended to unify all the increasingly disparate elements of the sciences under one comprehensive philosophy. Although Humboldt died before finishing his work, he had a profound impact on 19th-century science. Charles Darwin repeatedly mentions Humboldt in his letters and publications, and it is clear that Humboldt’s accounts of fieldwork in the tropics inspired several generations of natural historians.

Sheila Terry/Science Source

As one examines the history of natural history, a pattern becomes clear: Many of the most important naturalists were (and are) travelers during periods of their development as scientists. They went in search of a magical place that we now refer to as “the field.” They had direct encounters with strange organisms in the context of the landscapes where the creatures evolved. They returned home and wrote about both their science and their travels in ways that inspired a future generation to continue their work. Darwin may have spent the great majority of his professional life at Down, 10 miles from London Bridge, but his five years of travel and adventure on the HMS Beagle were what formed him as a scientist, and his love of South America comes shining through in his writing.

By the second quarter of the 20th century, it was becoming harder to find truly “wild” places for research or recreation. In the 1940s Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

It may be that as natural historians helped to fill those “blank spots on the map,” they were also taking some of the drive out of their field of study. Challenges facing the modern natural historian are no longer how to get from one point to another, but rather how to get beyond the Google Earth image and to make the seemingly familiar new and exciting.

Ecology Versus Natural History

Although Alexander, Grinnell, and their successors had no trouble talking about and teaching natural history, there was a growing critique of the term as describing an old-fashioned form of science. There were holdouts: In his 1927 book on animal ecology, Charles Elton—arguably one of the most influential British ecologists of the 20th century—casts back to the natural historians of the 18th century by quoting Gilbert White’s 1789 book, The Natural History of Selborne, in which White criticized the sort of research that “a man might do in his study,” saying: “The investigation of the life and conversation of animals is a concern of much more trouble and difficulty, and is not to be attained but by the active and inquisitive.” Elton then says, “Ecology is a new name for a very old subject. It simply means scientific natural history.”

Elton and his students ranged across the Northern Hemisphere, seeking explanations for population cycles in mammals and birds. Their data are ever more important as climate change transforms the Arctic in the opening act of what may be global catastrophe.

Unfortunately, the “trouble and difficulty” that White alluded to became increasingly problematic to many researchers. Although Elton and his students and successors spent a great deal of time in both the lab and the field testing hypotheses that could be regarded as appropriately scientific, the trend has moved away from studying organismal biology in a field setting. The causes of this trend are doubtless many and varied, but it seems possible that one element is the concurrent loss of history itself in the college science curriculum. When Warder C. Allee and several others wrote the landmark textbook Principles of Animal Ecology in 1949, the word ecology was less than 90 years old, yet Allee and his coauthors devoted two chapters and 59 pages to the history of the science. A 21st-century textbook is unlikely to mention history at all. Both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were inspired by Humboldt (Darwin took a copy of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative with him on the Beagle). If the history of scientific discovery is eliminated from the teaching of a science, who will inspire a new generation?

Humboldt made science seem accessible. A marvelous observer and travel writer, he went out of his way to tell his readers not only where he went, but also how he got there, what sort of equipment he took with him, and how he used it. More than 200 years later, reading his description of climbing the peak on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, one can imagine going there, doing the follow-up study, and comparing results. This attentiveness is the power of natural history.

Science Source

Biology as a series of lab exercises is in many respects exemplified by a model of science presented in John Platt’s 1964 paper in Science, “Strong Inference.” Although I am sure that many professors and doctoral committees say that “Strong Inference” isn’t the only view of science, the paper has been standard reading for graduate students for 50 years and in many cases may be the only specifically philosophic paper that students awarded PhDs in biology have read. Elements of the thinking in the paper have had a profound effect on several generations of teaching.

Platt was trained as a biophysicist and as such celebrated cell and molecular biology in particular. He made it clear that some types of science were more “successful” than others, and he dismissed many forms of biological research either directly or through omission. Like many of his forebears, Platt seems to have believed that the fieldwork carried out by natural historians was merely the collection of facts without doing anything useful with them. “Strong Inference” presented the idea that biology would be best served by emulating the physical sciences in selecting simple models that generate testable hypotheses with research questions structured as a branching tree: If this, then that; if not, then other. The paper is littered with delightful anecdotes and examples, and although Platt cautions against an excessive reliance on quantitative methods, he largely dismisses the importance of individual variation, stressing instead the tendency to generalize through oversimplified model systems.

A good case can be made for Platt’s overall outline: Initial observations give rise to working hypotheses that are tested and that lead to generalization and theoretical advance. The difficulty is that field biology is largely context dependent; often deals of necessity with small sample sizes; and for a broad range of organisms, the most interesting phenomena occur over longer timescales than the typical grant cycle. Platt had little patience for these complications. In instructing future scientists he makes light of surveys, taxonomy, design of equipment, systematic measurements, and tables.” He was also skeptical of the value of long-term studies, saying, “In dozens of cases in every field, what was needed was not a lifetime but rather a few short months or weeks of analytical inductive inference.” This maxim is certainly true in some cases, but if one deals, for example, with long-lived organisms that exhibit high reproductive variability between breeding episodes, Platt’s “few short months or weeks” will be misleading at best. Likewise, it is hard to imagine how one can even identify, much less explain, morphological or behavioral variation over a wide geographic area without the benefit of “surveys, taxonomy…systematic measurements, and tables.”

© Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

I doubt Darwin would have made the breakthroughs that still drive much of biology had he not first been exposed to a wide range of organisms. As a broadly trained naturalist, Darwin could learn from myriad creatures, spanning orchids to earthworms. Much of his initial enthusiasm came from paleontology before he refocused on living species. I further argue that although Darwin spent years indoors working on barnacle taxonomy, it was his actual observations of plants and animals in the field that led him to his linking behavior with morphology in a real evolutionary synthesis. In a similar way, Alexander, Grinnell, and their successors were able to see the importance of geography in ecology by direct exposure to the context of organisms’ lives.

Although Platt may have further accelerated the movement of science and the teaching of science indoors, we have not seen the major breakthroughs in ecological theory that he suggested would follow from his process. In more than 35 years as a practicing ecologist, I have seen the great flowering of theory of the 1960s and 1970s wither and be replaced with an increased emphasis on statistical manipulation and technology. We celebrate the sophistication of our tools, but it is not clear that an ever-improving ability to measure has translated into better guidelines of what matters in terms of what should be measured, or, subsequently, in our ability to predict outcomes. Although some of the terminology has changed, the contents of an ecology textbook published in 2015 are strikingly similar to what you would have found in 1972.

While criticizing contemporary ecological practice, the role of culture and class in our practices of science is important to recognize. Alexander, Darwin, and Humboldt had the advantage of being independently wealthy. Ray would have been unable to travel without the generosity of a wealthy benefactor. Grinnell benefited enormously from Alexander’s patronage. Frederick II was an emperor. Pliny was the chief secretary to an emperor.

In each case, what money bought was time: time to think, time to study, and time to travel and observe, unencumbered by any demand to “publish or perish.” Darwin could observe the action of earthworms in real time without having to worry about tenure decisions or where the next grant would come from. A modern graduate student in a five-year PhD program cannot afford the sort of freedom that many of the past figures in natural history took for granted. Professors, under increasing pressure to publish frequently in high-impact journals, are ever more unavailable for time-intensive field courses. Broad understanding of taxonomy is replaced by increasingly specialized knowledge and technique.

A modern graduate student in a five-year PhD program cannot afford the sort of freedom that many past figures in natural history took for granted.

The failure to train a new generation of natural historians goes beyond academic interests and has practical and legal implications. Several years ago, I participated in a workshop on the importance of natural history in modern science. After the presentations, a representative from a federal agency stood up and said essentially, “Look, you environmentalists have managed to get all these laws passed that require us to do environmental-impact statements. Then you betrayed us. You went into the lab and focused on theory and genetics. You stopped teaching herpetology, mammalogy, and ornithology. When I am trying to do a consultation on the Endangered Species Act, I don’t need someone who can talk theory or run gels; I need to know whether that is a clouded salamander, because if it is, a whole new regulatory procedure has to be instituted. You people in universities just aren’t turning out students with the training I need anymore.”

If universities no longer train students in field biology, we will no longer have the core knowledge needed to enforce policies. Furthermore, we will not have teachers who can pass on knowledge and enthusiasm that will get people outdoors with an eye for biological diversity. As fewer people have even a passing knowledge of the plants and animals around them, where will we get the members of town conservation commissions? Science already has something of a communications problem outside of increasingly narrow subdisciplines. Natural history is and always has been a way of encouraging citizen participation in the process of understanding one’s surroundings.

Bringing Back Natural History

The problems before us are nontrivial and will not be met by simple solutions. The loss of influence of natural history is both symptomatic and causative of changes in our practice of science and our view of nature. In the past 50 years, we have chosen to reward short-term, highly focused studies in our science and the dramatic and the exotic in our view of nature. This trend has led to some useful discoveries and a degree of ecological appreciation, but it isn’t enough.

The next generation of students could end up discouraged from pursuing the organismally based field biology that is needed for conservation planning and implementation, whereas the broader public, jaded by beautiful imagery on nature shows, will turn away from their local environment when they find that there are ticks, mosquitoes, and a likelihood of rain. Platt and his generation staged something of a revolution in science. Perhaps now is the time for a counterrevolution.

What can we learn from the history of natural history? First, resources matter. We need to redirect a significant portion of funding to long-term and exploratory studies. Instead of telling new biologists to decide on a question and then pick a model organism that will answer that question, we need to also encourage taking time to simply observe, and then letting the questions come. This process will require money and a change in pedagogy. We should consider universities as facilitators—supporting a student to sit, observe, think, and develop a real sense of the context of subsequent hypotheses. We need to also acknowledge that some questions require a great deal of time to arrive at real answers. Granting agencies should move away from the model of awarding a few big, nonrenewable grants that cover one or two years of research, and instead consider incremental grants that are guaranteed for 10 or 20 years, and may involve generations of graduate students.

Second, travel matters. Stepping out of familiar surroundings seems to work wonders for some people. Darwin needed the Beagle to develop as a biologist. Humboldt needed South America. Wallace needed the East Indies. Programs such as the Organization for Tropical Studies do a marvelous job of exposing some North American students to the Neotropics, but there needs to be more reciprocity in terms of North–South exchange and greater access to this sort of program by a broader range of students. We also need to encourage East–West movement both continentally and globally. Many graduate programs used to have language requirements built in to a degree. What if there was a travel requirement? Graduate students would be encouraged (and supported) to take a semester in an entirely new landscape.

Third, we should take advantage of what is already partially in place. For example, the U.S. National Park Service has the potential to play a leadership role in understanding change on both the local and global levels. Some of this action is already happening. Alexander and Grinnell’s successors have done some remarkable work in Yosemite National Park examining changes in the distribution of birds and mammals. This model can be duplicated a hundredfold with the right planning and investment of time and resources. The National Park Service’s Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks emphasizes parks as outdoor laboratories, but we have yet to commit the funding and personnel needed to make this vision a reality.

Fourth, we need to directly involve a broader public in the study and appreciation of the outdoors. Although Fleischner’s “focused attentiveness” takes training and patience, it is doable by a broad segment of society at a fraction of the cost of many lab experiments. One can get dozens of pairs of binoculars and hand lenses for the price of a good compound microscope. Many high-school and college classes are taught every year in the same locations by the same instructors seeking ways to engage a changing mosaic of students. The development of standardized protocols for data collection, coordination, and analysis is entirely feasible.

Courtesy of the author.

Such endeavors would not represent data collection for the sake of data collection. Current technologies allow the integration of information over broad areas, essentially crowdsourcing observations continentwide (or even globally) that can lead to novel hypotheses and theoretical explanations. We are beginning to see the power of this sort of data collection with websites such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird program and apps such as iNaturalist. Educational institutions, museums, and government agencies could act as clearinghouses for the enormous data sets that a truly involved citizenry would generate. Each individual would have the opportunity to participate in the assembly of information (a process that could help people appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of data collection) as well as to see how their piece of the puzzle fits into a larger framework.

Finally, we need to be bold in accepting that science is as much about the unknown as it is about the known. We need to take chances, run down blind alleys, and accept that sometimes, as with Grinnell and Alexander, our work may be of greatest use long after we are gone. It is widely accepted that students learn best when they are active players in their education and when they can participate in all stages of the work involved—from initial observation through theorizing, data collection, analysis, and presentation of results. Unfortunately, many scientific exercises tend to be preprogrammed, with one “right” answer, and students are evaluated on their ability to achieve this intended outcome. Any difference in results is dismissed as some form of error. This practice isn’t really science in the broad sense; it is recipe-book cooking in which imagination and initiative are suppressed and the world is presented as a much cleaner and clearer place than it actually is.

Technology can aggregate broad data sets, but it also has the ability to remove us from actual landscapes and organisms. Remote sensing and geographic information systems can provide invaluable overviews of habitats, regions, and whole continents. They allow us to represent reality in particular and often useful ways, but sooner or later someone is going to have to go out and find out what those pixels actually represent. If we do not train a new generation of natural historians, the federal agent I mentioned earlier will continue to be betrayed.

Regulations change. What does not change is the importance of the direct encounter with the other that fieldwork can provide. Anyone who has seen the face of a student banding her first bird (or has talked to her 20 years later) will have no doubts about the impact of that experience on her subsequent attitudes toward both the wild and the practice of science. Done well, natural history can provide a rich and informative encounter with the nonhuman world that may be essential for a successful program in conservation and Earth stewardship. Rather than fencing off the wild across an artificial barrier of civilization, natural history in partnership with science and technology can provide new insights into and appreciation for both the human and the nonhuman world.

Our advances in genetics and statistical analysis would intrigue Alexander and Grinnell, and they would doubtless be gratified that the 100th anniversary of Grinnell’s vertebrate natural history course would be celebrated in 2017. But I suspect they would be most enthusiastic about the field trips after that symposium and the students, young and old, who are willing to put up with a few of White’s “difficulties” to know what is behind the trees, around the corner, and on the further slope.


  • Anderson, J. G. T. 2012. Deep Things Out of Darkness: A History of Natural History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Fleischner, T. L. 2001. Natural history and the spiral of offering. Wild Earth 11(3/4):10–13.
  • Ghilarov, A. 2001. The changing place of theory in 20th century ecology: From universal laws to array of methodologies. Oikos 92:357–362.
    • Humboldt, A. von, and A. Bonpland. 1852. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, during the Years 1799–1804. Vol. 1. Trans. T. Ross. London: H. Bohn.
    • Platt, J. R. 1964. Strong Inference. Science 146:347–353.
    • Ray, J. 2014. The Wisdom of God in the Works of Creation. Republished from the 7th edition of 1717. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press.
    • Sunderland, M. 2013. Teaching natural history at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. The British Journal for the History of Science 46:97–121.
    • Tewksbury, J., et al. 2014. Natural history’s place in science and society. BioScience 64:300–310.

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