Thursday, February 26, 2009

Two Degrees from President Obama

Back in January I was delighted to learn that President Obama had appointed my college ecology professor, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). All personal bias aside, he could not have made a better choice.

Dr. Lubchenco had previously received a “genius grant,” one of the MacArthur Fellowship awards for the year 1993, just one of many recognitions for her work in marine biology, climate change, and teaching. It is truly a gifted person who can be both a scholar and a public figure able to articulate complex scientific concepts to a general audience.

Dr. Lubchenco was among the most patient and available of all the instructors I had during my attendance at Oregon State University, even providing students with her home phone number. She remains an inspiration to me today, and a fine example of where hard work, dedication, humility, and passion can take you. Nice people really can finish first! Good luck, Dr. L!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Evolution, Creation, and Conservation

In honor of Darwin’s two hundredth birthday, why not call a truce in the ongoing war between evolution and creationism? Indeed, in light of the continuing decline in biodiversity, perhaps it is time for science and religion to unite in conservation efforts.

It is unfortunate that there is more hostility than humor involved here. I recall watching a television interview with anthropologist Richard Leakey, many years ago, in which he pronounced the word as “EVIL-u-shun.” No wonder some people are mortified by the term. Both biologists and theologians do have reason to fear the power wielded by their “opponent,” but this may be due in part to insufficient faith in God, or lack of confidence in the scientific method.

Science has come a long way in providing a tangible explanation for the history of life on Earth. Since so much time, energy, and expense has been invested in coming to those conclusions, any attempt to question what is now considered factual, basic knowledge is met with bristling defense. This runs counter to the qualities that make an outstanding scientist: unending curiosity and an open mind. In fact, the scientific method encourages a full investigation of all possibilities, and requires ceaseless repetition of studies before a conclusion can be reached. Arriving at a particular theory is thus a Herculean effort for science, while creationism requires no proof, only faith in God and Biblical chronology. This may hardly seem fair to the blood-sweating scientist.

Those in the religious community may fear the motives behind scientific research, but, ironically, both camps are anthropocentric in their perspectives. Once science had developed an explanation for a natural phenomenon, the next step is usually an attempt to manage the resources involved for the benefit of humanity. All too often this results in mismanagement, exploitation, and waste. Maybe mankind was better off when more “primitive” cultures gave thanks to the gods responsible for rain, the salmon runs, and a successful hunt. Still, science rightly criticizes western religion for encouraging the idea that God intended for man to dominate nature.

It is only natural (we are, after all, animals, too) that we put our own interests above the welfare of other species, but wildlife conservation remains a very popular cause. Why, then, is it an effort championed almost exclusively by scientists? If each species was created by the hand of God, why aren’t creationists in an uproar over man-induced extinctions? Why have there been so few, if any, high-profile demonstrations by creationists in support of, say, saving whales? Ok, so one did swallow Jonah. Well, no one is building another ark, either, but such a publicity stunt would underscore the need to protect our dwindling wildlife populations.

There is, of course, no guarantee that scientists, in their frequent arrogance and vanity, would welcome their traditional antagonists with open arms, but it might be in their best interests to do so. Not having all the answers may be a weakness in science, but it is the source of strength for spiritual faith. It follows that meditation, prayer, and hands-on fieldwork are actions that complement each other.

The real enemy is not a theory of how species came into being, but the forces driving these organisms to extinction. The Earth should be considered the ultimate temple, not to be desecrated in the name of science or religion. A demonstration of humility and cooperation should be the order of the day. Once a balance has been restored, we can go about the pleasant task of arguing over who should take credit for the new Garden of Eden.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Science and the Sense of Wonder

I clearly recall that bright, crisp February day in 1983 when my academic world and my appreciation of nature collided. Enrolled in college, I had taken up jogging for exercise and communion with the surrounding rural environs. But while my mind and body ran toward a “wilderness” of rolling grasslands in Corvallis, Oregon, my curriculum steered me inexorably away from the living world.

After reaching the literal end of the road that evening, I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the alpenglow on the snow-capped Cascades. I was a long way from campus, but the soils course I was taking colored my view. In the classroom we studied the nitty gritty of that marvelous medium that coats this planet, including its mountaintops. No mind was paid to the landscape, though, only to the proportion of silt, sand, and clay. Sort of a quantum mechanics of humus and loam.

Regaining my breath, and a sense of what really matters to me, I exhaled heavily and voiced out loud that it was degrading to reduce a mountain to a soil profile.

Science isolates, concentrates, and fragments nature until the disciplines lose sight of the whole. The joys of the field are replaced with paper ecosystems and laboratory facsimiles. The implication is thus: science is not the study of nature, it is the management of nature. The flames of awe are extinguished in academia, replaced with utilitarian values. The “sense of wonder” and “biophilia” are buried under computer models, equations, and formulas.

Perhaps I am guilty of rationalizing the frequency with which I failed calculus and dropped statistics, but I felt those subjects tore me away from the lives of the insects I wanted to learn about. These abstract sciences were a wall I had to break through first. It was spring term of my sophomore year before I was allowed to even take a class in my major of entomology. This prolonged detachment eventually proved intolerable and I gave up the pursuit of a degree.

It seems to me that placing man remote from nature is also what created our present environmental crises. Like war propaganda dehumanizes the enemy, it becomes easier to destroy an ecosystem, or a species, when it is represented by schematic diagrams, numbers, graphs, tables, or charts. It is more difficult to develop the habitat of an endangered butterfly, for example, if we experience the area ourselves, firsthand. Documents like Environmental Impact Statements give the illusion that we know and understand all, and that nature is easily manipulated. Paper is a safer medium than experimenting with the real thing, and we are spared a guilt trip if something goes awry.

All this is not to say that botanists, entomologists, and others are inadvertently conspiring to undermine the conservation of biodiversity. To the contrary, I greatly admire professionals such as E. O. Wilson, Bernd Heinrich, and Thomas Eisner who conduct valuable research and still articulate their sense of wonder so eloquently to collegiate casualties like myself. I shall never forget the biology lab in which our teacher assistant began each period reading an essay by the late Lewis Thomas. Such wisdom should be a routine complement to textbook assignments and laboratory experiments. It is all too easy for students to lose interest, and perspective, when they are pressured to lower their horizons to fit specialized career markets.

I thrive as a generalist, forever amazed, and anxious to translate the latest scientific detective story for the lay public. I believe it is my duty to cultivate the curiosity that leads to discovery, fascination, appreciation, and ultimately a practical, caring approach to the stewardship of the Earth. When it comes to mathematics, that “language of science,” well, I will need an interpreter.