Saturday, January 29, 2011

Modern Life is Rubbish

I've really tried hard this month not to moan about workload. As a good friend of mine always says when I try to share my troubles, "nobody wants to hear it" (as you can tell, she must be a very good friend of mine if she says stuff like that). Anyway after submitting the last of the four grant applications that I've done in the past 6 months, it's high time we got back to the business of moaning about natural history collections and the people that work in them.

Some time ago, I made the decision to come off the Vertpaleo listserve because I was tired of inane "debates" cluttering up my in-box. Since then, I have been enjoying the relative peace that comes from subscribing only to listserves that deal with practical, work-related stuff. Like NHCOLL-L for example (typical post - "I have noticed a white precipitate at the bottom of a jar full of carp - does anyone know what it is?"). Over the last couple of weeks, however, NHCOLL has been hijacked (in a very polite way) by people who want to discuss "the extinction of natural history."

Digging around in the various posts, it became clear that what people really meant was the decline in the sort of integrative organismal biology that formed the backbone of undergraduate zoology and botany degrees for much of the last century, a frequent hobbyhorse for the sort of people that end up working in natural history museums. You might expect me to sympathize with these concerns. I went through one of the last of the classic organismal biology undergraduate degree courses in the UK, the old Zoology course at Oxford. I spent three terms dissecting my way through the animal kingdom from coelenterates to rats; did an ecology course that featured lectures on the role of giant tortoises on Aldabra Atoll; endlessly sampled the insect fauna of Wytham Woods, and spent hours recording the behavior of parasite-infested sticklebacks. It was enormous fun.

It also left me signally ill-equipped for life as a 21st Century biologist. I was so busy cutting up sea urchins and crawling around in the woods and fields of Oxfordshire brandishing my pooter that I managed to avoid any training in physiology, cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, or quantitative methods (which is how I ended up as a paleontologist, readers!). If the purpose of an undergraduate degree is to give you a grounding in the basics of your discipline, then mine failed me completely. I'm happy to say that the current generation of Oxford biologists fare rather better. If the new Biology degree curriculum seems a little bloodless, it does at least provide students with a broad foundation from which they can go on to pursue more specialized interests if they wish.

Moaning about the demise of organismal biology is a bit like complaining that we don't use steam trains any more, or lamenting the decline in fine penmanship. When we laud the insights achieved by 19th century naturalists like Darwin or Wallace it's easy to get forget that this was cutting edge science for its time, as much as sequencing robots and genomics are cutting edge today. Science moves on; new discoveries and new techniques have to be incorporated into packed curricula. Subjects that could once be covered adequately in a lecture or two now require whole courses. Things change - get over it.

There is, of course, a legitimate case to be made that in concentrating too much on teaching the nuts of bolts of life we lose sight of the wider context, turning out academically short-sighted graduates who are incapable of making meaningful observations in the field. This is an area where natural history museums have an important role to play, by engaging with K-12 students and feeding a fascination with the natural world before they reach university; providing a different perspective for undergraduate teaching; and supplying information and materials to support postgraduate research.  Saying that natural history, as a discipline, belongs in a museum is no insult. In a crowded world of science education, it's probably the best thing that could have happened.

(PS - the title of this post, aside from capturing some of the tone of the listserve debate, was picked solely as an opportunity to highlight Blur's magnificent album of the same title. Released in 1993, it features a splendid picture of The Mallard on its cover and is (as Amazon says), "the weirdest and most endearing head-rock album since the Flaming Lips' Transmissions from the Satellite Heart." It's much better than Parklife. Download a copy and listen to it now!)

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