Sunday, January 10, 2010

What makes a naturalist?

When I saw this beautiful beetle snooping around on one of my favorite flowers, I thought of Linnaeus, the inventor of the modern classification system we still use for living organisms. Linnaeus was a creationist, like most people in his time, and he undoubtedly would have seen the relationship between the beetle and the plant [if, in fact, he saw a relationship at all] as evidence for the awesome creativity of God. To Charles Darwin, who came along in the next century, it would have been cause for curiosity. He soon hypothesized that flowers and pollinators evolved together [co-evolved] into some remarkable relationships. In fact, after seeing many different species of columbine being pollinated by insects or hummingbirds whose probosci perfectly matched the size of the tubular petals of the flowers, enabling them to reach the nectar at their bottoms, meanwhile carrying the rubbed-off pollen to yet other flowers, he encountered a species of columbine with 6"-long tubes. He hypothesized that there existed a hummingbird with a bill just that length. Indeed, many years later such a bird was discovered and it turned out to be a pollinator of that species of columbine, thus demonstrating the power of evolutionary theory to predict.

Biologist Richard Dawkins, who is quite familiar with the works of Linnaeus and Darwin, is clearly partial to the approach of Darwin. He has said, "I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world." On the other hand, was it Benjamin Franklin who said, "Curiosity killed the cat?" I'll take my chances with curiosity. This past year, while photographing wildflowers, I came across many pollinators, or at least visitors, I had never seen before. I got lots of aesthetic pleasure from these discoveries, but also had my curiosity fired up many times.

Two quotes I have pondered while contemplating the many plant-animal partnerships I have seen: Wilson Heydt: "As soon as you are willing to discard observational data because it conflicts with religion, you are giving up any hope of understanding the universe," and Galileo: "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use."

The endeavor called natural history has evolved, not only from a creationist perspective to one of investigation, but also from using the shotgun as a primary tool to using a camera.

Today's natural historian can learn a great deal from his/her own observations, but also has a greater opportunity than ever before to network with other naturalists/scientists, including ones who spend most of their time in the laboratory. For example, I just a read a report on the Science News website about a sea slug that eats marine algae. It incorporates the algal chloroplasts into its own body and then begins performing photosynthesis. This part of the story has been known for a while. However, the new breakthrough is the discovery that if the slug takes in and metabolizes enough chlorophyll it can begin to manufacture its own chlorophyll! This beautifully demonstrates the commonality of the metabolic pathways of all living things - we are certainly more closely related to chimpanzees than to algae, but we still have a lot in common with the algae. This is the sort of discovery that excites a naturalist, but might drive others a little bit crazy.

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