Wednesday, August 5, 2009 - 4:00 PM

OOS 33-8: A natural history curriculum for cyborgs

Carlos Martinez del Rio, University of Wyoming and Joshua J. Tewksbury, University of Washington.

Background/Question/Methods Natural history is often conceived as biological research that is more observational than experimental and more anecdotal than quantitative. Our image of the natural historian is as anachronistic. We view natural historians as the travelling collectors of the age of empire. A more apt view of natural history defines it not by the approach we take to answer a question, but by the questions that we ask and by how we convey the answers that we find. More than 50 years ago, Marston Bates proposed that natural historians attempt to find out how did all the different kinds of organisms come about; what forces governed their evolution; what forces maintain their numbers and determine their survival or extinction; and what are their relations to each other and to the physical environment in which they live? Although these questions remain relevant and finding their answers has become urgent, the gentleman naturalist of the past cannot answer them. Contemporary Natural History is for cyborgs: creatures simultaneously human and machine. But, what is a cyborg natural historian and how do we train her? Results/Conclusions Humans are limited beings. We live short lives, our senses are constrained, and our computational and cognitive abilities are bounded within narrow limits. Without technological aids we perceive the world at a minuscule range of temporal and spatial scales. A cyborg's senses are enhanced by a confocal microscope that probes into living cells and satellites that monitor ecosystems and beam data on their processes at huge spatial scales. She uses molecular tools to explore deep into the history of life and uses simulations to create scenarios of ecological and evolutionary change far into the future. Her enhanced brain/computer can transduce, code, organize and process the vast amounts of information that her newly developed senses deliver. The distinction between a naturalist cyborg and just a cyborg depends on the traits that have been traditionally associated with natural history, and which include finely honed ethical and esthetic instincts, biophilia, and the observational powers and intuition that result from long hours in the field. To train naturalist cyborgs we must develop both the technological savvy of students, their esthetic sensitivity and awareness, and their contact with the natural world. I will outline the ingredients of a curriculum for cyborg naturalists and contend that this curriculum can result in a fine Liberal Arts education for the 21st Century.