[Taxacom] Zootaxa opinion piece

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Thu Feb 27 18:10:58 CST 2014

"Unfortunately, neither his parents, nor later his teacher, were able to satisfy Thomas’ eager curiosity to discover what kind of animal he had encountered. Not so long ago, any teacher would have known it is a beetle, and any teacher with at least a slight interest in nature would probably have recognized a weevil. Today, this kind of knowledge is disappearing even among biologists, whose ability to recognize forms of life may be reduced to that of Thomas; a paradox, given that there are numerous environmental organisations and societies active all around the world."

Is there a connection between this issue and what could broadly be called 'science'? Observers of the natural world might or might not finish up as biologists, or nature photographers, or even 'environmental consultants', but they don't start out that way. They start by looking around and noticing things. '12 year-old Thomas' might not know a beetle from a bug, but he might be able to distinguish a passing Citroen from an Opel at a glance.

Conversely, I've known 8 year-olds who could name the fish they'd just caught on a line, and explain the differences between the half-dozen fish species found at their favourite fishing spot. That knowledge wasn't picked up from teachers, but from other kids and adults, and possibly from fishermens' posters and magazines, as well as repeated personal observations.

I think it's drawing a long bow to connect the Thomas/beetle anecdote to the decline of taxonomy. Curious kids *will* find the information they want, and if they can't get all the details, they'll accept that the information is inconclusive.

The decline of natural history is (in my mind, anyway) a different matter. In Australia, unfortunately, it's related to banal things like insurance, bus-hire costs and occupational health and safety, which keeps kids inside in classrooms, rather than outside in the bush. Those things, plus the ignorance of today's teachers. At higher levels in the education system, there are intellectual obstacles. These were very nicely described some 15 years ago in an article on 'The impending extinction of natural history' by David Wilcove and Thomas Eisner. If you can't find the article elsewhere on the Web, look here

Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Agricultural Science, University of Tasmania
Home contact:
PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
(03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195

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