Contemplation, pattern, and a sense of place: The role of natural history in grounding science
The vast percentage of citizens, in rich and poor countries, will never become scientists, or even study science. Urban dwellers, now >80% of the U.S. population, seldom experience wild nature and wildlands. At my university, more than 34,000 undergraduates stroll our three urban campuses. Less than 2,000 take our Introductory Biology course in Ecology and Evolution. A few hundred of those will conduct independent field research constructed according to the scientific method. Maybe ten will go on in academic ecology. And yet all of them experience urban ecology - from Douglas fir squirrels to invasive nutria, from managed lawns to restored wetlands - as they walk from dorm to class. Can ecology embrace the masses, teach a wider paradigm of science, tap into new forms of data collection, and reconnect humanity to the ecosystems we affect and depend on?
Natural history explores the "stories" of nature through patient observation and multiple representations, from Audubon's iconic images of North American birds to Wilson's Biophilia and even embracing Marris' Rambunctious Garden. A complement to the scientific method, natural history seeks to capture and define natural pattern by placing the contemplative observer in the scene and acknowledging the emotional attachment between the watcher and the watched. Citizen science invites the non-scientists among us to become a meaningful, even crucial, part of the scientific process - decentralized data/information collectors amassing fine-grained observations about parts of the natural world they know and love, at scales rivaled only by remote sensing. Where scientists have the vision and expertise to create rigorous data collection and analysis methods centered around questions of disciplinary and resource management interest, citizens have the deep place-based attachment to their piece of the world - a field, a forest, a beach, a backyard. Natural historians of citizen science have already contributed fundamental observations about the way nature reacts to global change, from the pole-ward range shifts of European butterfly populations aligned with warming trends (presented in Parmesan et al. 1999), to the spread of invasive bird species across the Americas (documented by Koenig 2003), to the loss of amphibian biodiversity in the wake of habitat degradation (published by Weir et al. 2005). In this century of seven billion people, scaling up our data collection is the only way ecology and conservation will approach the solutions science demanded by society. Citizen-based natural history guided by individual interest and ecological inquiry is an excellent start.