Natural history, the study of organisms in the environment, is in steep decline and for good reason.

A large part of the modern chemophobia that has undermined science acceptance in America is due to natural history - it became a haven for weak observational studies that got media headlines or, in the case of Rachel Carson and "Silent Spring", a book of anecdotes and observations. Modern scientists prefer experiments rather than observations and so the primary use of natural history has been for 'spray and count' practitioners who need to demonize pesticides or BPA or whatever the scare journalism of the week is.

There are lots of areas of study that are no longer useful and natural history may be in that realm, but a group of authors writing in an upcoming BioScience article argue otherwise, and say that a revitalization of the practice of natural history will provide important benefits for science and society. Not surprisingly, the authors are ecologists - the very group, along with epidemiologists and anthropologists, who let sociologically-driven zealots in their ranks undermine their disciplines and make natural history irrelevant in the first place.


Their core logic is sound.

75 percent of emerging infectious diseases of humans, including avian influenza, Lyme disease, cholera, and rabies, are linked to other animals at some point in their life cycle. Control strategies rely on knowledge of these hosts' natural history. Sustainable agricultural practices, such as companion planting, crop rotation, and pest control, likewise rely on knowledge of natural history.

What killed the popularity of natural history? Fifth columnists hiding in The Green Revolution. Effective fisheries management today is really, really solid and it relies on natural history, as is deer hunting in Pennsylvania. What are modern green activists against? Fishing and hunting are on that list. 

We used to have common-sense forest fire prevention but activists have managed to pit competing and poorly-written environmental laws off against each other - after they wrote the laws and got lobbyists to get them on the books - and now we have runaway forest fires punctuated by mudslides because everything is called 'logging' and ends up with activists sitting in trees. It's completely against the spirit of Norm Borlaug's Green Revolution but when people think of the Green Revolution today they think of lawsuits and money-raising schemes, not science.

And science is not to be allowed in environmental claims. Modern environmentalism is about adoration of a mythological ancient world. Natural history ignored is the ecology imperiled, the authors write. Yet so much of natural history has become synonymous with environmental activism that the public doesn't respect it any more than they respect a degree in 19th century French poetry.

The majority of US schools now have no natural history requirements for a biology degree, a trend that has coincided with the rise of molecular, experimental, theoretical, and other forms of biology, which rely on experiment rather than observation and are therefore more likely to get science funding and public recognition. 

Yet the authors say that models should  be built on field observations in order to usefully represent the real world.They see hope for the discipline, both within and outside of traditional natural history collections, in the rise of Internet- and smart phone-based technologies that allow the growth of broad partnerships, including citizen-science initiatives.