Tag Archives: entoalexia

Natural History learning should be compulsory for all, not just an option for a niche few

One of the few benefits of the Covid-19 pandemic is that I have been able to spend a lot more time outdoors roaming the country lanes around my lockdown prison*.  Prior to my move to Harper Adams University, I had, from 1992-2012, spent two days a week doing fieldwork at Silwood Park. When I moved  from there to Harper Adams, I resisted the temptation to set up yet another long-term field study, and decided to concentrate (not very successfully) on analysing my data backlog and getting the MSc courses well and truly established at their new location. At the time I hadn’t realised how much I had benefited, physically and mentally, from my Silwood transects until I started my lunchtime lockdown treks. I have over the past eleven weeks, added four new aphid species to my personal list, plus a couple of beetles (including one notable species), counted butterflies, seen a hare, reacquainted myself with lots of grasses and herbaceous plants, talked to trees, fumbled a few fungal identifications, and even taken a passing interest in birds :-).  I mention all this because I am a great believer in fieldwork and the benefits that accrue in terms of ideas if you keep your eyes open to all the other things that are happening around your study organisms. Given the vast number of insect species and the close relationships most of them have with plants, it behoves a field entomologist to have more than a passing interest in natural history.

This past week has seen a flurry of interest in the study of natural history in the UK. One of the national exam boards (OCR), after a lot of lobbying from the author Mary Colwell and organisations such as the UK Plant Science Federation, has set out a consultation document about the launch of a new GCSE** qualification in Natural History. As someone who has been bemoaning the lack of natural history training at all levels for many years, this, on the face of it, seems a great idea.

Learning the basics

This is their proposed statement on the purpose of studying Natural History: (so lack of appropriate punctuation is not due to me)

“Natural history offers a unique opportunity to observe and engage with the natural world to develop a deeper understanding of the flora and fauna (life on Earth) within it. It is a study of how the natural world has been shaped and has evolved as well as how humans (as part of that natural world) influence, conserve and protect it. It is vital that we continue to develop our understanding of the natural world in order to safeguard the future.

To fully appreciate the complexities of the natural world it is important to study it closely and interact with it through field research and measurement. Natural history provides opportunities to develop skills out in the field as well as in a classroom and/or laboratory. Studying natural history makes an important contribution to understanding the relationship between the natural world and culture, policy decisions, scientific research and technology.

Study of science, geography, history and the arts at key stages 3 and 4 provides a variety of complementary skills and knowledge which support the study of Natural history. This subject supports the development of unique skills and knowledge which give a sharper focus and depth to the complexities of the natural world. The progression pathway for this subject at key stage 5 and beyond could be scientific, geographical, environmental, ecological or natural history itself.”

 

This is all very laudable and something I think that all of us interested in natural history would support wholeheartedly.  In the UK, the problem is particularly acute and is something that has been recognised for some time (Leather & Quicke, 2010).  Natural history training at all levels has been appalling over the last couple of decades, and has been aided and abetted by the way in which research councils have awarded funding over that period (Clark & May, 2002; Leather, 2009, 2013).  This, and the typical media coverage, see us living in a world where ecology and conservation, is largely perceived to be vertebrate biased, and insects, with the exception of honeybees, portrayed as the enemies of humankind.

Typical reporting of the biodiversity crisis in the UK

Vertebrate bias not just confined to the UK

A very natural (and to me fascinating) phenomenon provoking hysterical reactions on Twitter. Most of the replies were similar to these “Just RUN,  RUN, Ew, Look for a spaceship – it’s an alien, we’re doomed, we’re all doomed”

Yet another harmless insect vilified

This is a problem and something one would hope that a pre-university qualification in natural history would seek to address.  Now, although I very much like and support the idea of a secondary school qualification in Natural History, I can see a couple of problems looming ahead.  First,  I may be biased, but looking at how the macro-species are represented globally, one would justifiably expect the study of natural history to focus on plants, insects and other invertebrates.

Estimated number of species globally within the macro-world (invertebrates other than insects number approximately 300 000 species).

Where are the invertebrates? Surely rather than the rise of the mammals, it should be mammals gain a precarious claw hold?  The invertebrates were, and continue to be the dominant animal life from on Earth, but don’t get a mention.  Then in another part of the consultation document, under topics to be considered, we see yet another anti plant and insect bias creeping in and a pro-vertebrate slant.

  • Effects of introducing non-native species (e.g. harlequin ladybirds, Rhododendron)
  • Species reintroduction (e.g. wolves, beavers, red kites)

There are lots of vertebrate non-native species that could be named (Eatherley, 2019) and many notable insect reintroductions (e.g. Andersen, 2016)..but where are they?

Despite the fact that the much respected book series The New Naturalist,and the equally respected journal, The American Naturalist, proudly include the word naturalist in their titles, sometime in the last thirty years or so, natural history and naturalist became words that were regarded with some scorn and suspicion within the hallowed halls of academia. Whereas in the past, to be an ecologist necessitated an understanding and knowledge of the living world (Travis, 2020), the ability to produce mathematical models and run complex statistical analyses became the route to tenure and laboratories chock a block with postdocs and PhD students.  In universities, computers and molecular biology labs replaced plant and animal based practical classes. Ecology field courses based around insect, and plant identification disappeared, to reappear rebadged as conservation courses and moved to exotic climes with a focus on the large and easily seen furry, feathered and scaled vertebrates. (OK, I’m being a bit hyperbolic here but you know what I mean; and this is a true story, when I was at Imperial College and it was very obvious that we were running out of entomologists to teach the subject, my Head of Department on me drawing this to his attention, suggested that we could do more modelling).  At the same time, biology teaching in secondary schools was also changing in scope, moving away from the outdoors and whole organisms, to molecules, genetics and humans.  The age of plant blindness, entomyopia, entoalexia and nature deficit disorder (Louw, 2005) was well and truly established by the beginning of the 21st Century.

This brings me to my biggest concern.  Insects and plants dominate the natural world, but, as we know, entomologists and botanists are in very short supply. In the UK, Botany and Zoology departments have mostly been subsumed into BioScience and Life Sciences departments to the detriment of whole organism teaching. There are no Botany Departments per se, and in the few remaining Zoology Departments, entomologists, make up at the most, half of the tenured staff, so where are the teachers going to come from?

Who will teach Natural History?

 

Finally, even if we find the teachers and the curriculum is appropriately balanced to reflect the natural world, unless we make it compulsory to all, as is the case with English and Mathematics, it will only ever remain a niche subject taken by relatively few students.  Consequently, elephant hawk moth caterpillars will continue to be beaten to death by suburban parents afraid of snakes, the press will continue to vilify harmless wood wasps, bumbling beautiful cockchafers will be swatted to death and hoverflies squashed by rolled up newspapers for no good reason.

 

References

Andersen, A. , Simcox, D.J., Thomas, J.A. & Nash, D.R. (2016) Assessing reintroduction schemes by comparing genetic diversity of reintroduced and source populations: A case study of the globally threatened large blue butterfly (Maculinea arion). Biological Conservation, 175, 34-41.

Clark, J.A. & May, R.M. (2002) Taxonomic bias in conservation research. Science, 297, 191-192.

Eatherley, D. (2019) Invasive Aliens, William Collins, London.

Leather, S.R. (2009) Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist, 56, 10-13.

Leather, S.R. (2013) Institutional vertebratism hampers insect conservation generally; not just saproxylic beetle conservation. Animal Conservation, 16, 379-380.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.L.J. (2010) Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist, 30, 1-2.

Louw, R. (2005)  Last Child in the Woods, Atlantic Books, London.

Purvis, A. (2020) A single apex target for biodiversity would be bad news for both nature and people. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4, 768-769.

Travis, J. (2020) Where is natural history in ecological, evolutionary and behavioral science?  The American Naturalist, 196,

 

*my wife and I managed to end up being lock-downed 250 km apart 😦

**Non UK residents see here for an explanation

11 Comments

Filed under Teaching matters

Entomyopia and Entoalexia – two potentially life-threatening conditions

This post was stimulated by two recent events.  First, a conversation I had at a curry evening organised by the amateur band that my wife plays in.  My neighbour was a well-educated modern languages teacher in her early forties.  We discussed our various jobs and she evinced surprise that anyone would want to work with insects and even when I explained the myriad benefits of understanding insect biology and ecology to her in terms of food security, vector control, detritivores, integrated pest management, pollination etc., she was still unconcerned about the lack of training provision for entomology and the dwindling number of young entomologists in the population.  I also highlighted the growing disconnect between people and nature.  Her response was that it was just the way it was and that people had other interests now!  I was, despite the fact that I have bemoaned the lack of funding for invertebrate research and training for some time now, totally amazed and down-hearted.  The second event was when one of my entomological colleagues reported to me how shocked he had been, when describing the recent opening of our new entomology building at Harper Adams University to his next door neighbour, a retired engineer, that the neighbour expressed great surprise that anyone would want such a facility and why anyone would want to spend that amount of money to enable entomological research.

I have written before about my worries about the decline of interest in natural history and entomology (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010) but I feel that it is now well past time to do something urgently about this lack of understanding among the public, the educational establishment, funding councils and the government.  Not only is institutional invertebratism  (Leather, 2009, 2013) still alive and well but we now have two potentially life-threatening conditions that desperately need curing.

Entomyopia

noun

entomological short-sightedness

        • a condition in which insects are viewed either as pollinators or as nuisances
        • a lack of foresight or discernment as to the importance of entomology:  a narrow view of entomology

Entoalexia

noun

entomological blindness

        • a condition in which a person or organisation, is totally oblivious to the importance of entomology and insects

Insects - what insects

Symptoms

The closing of entomology departments and research groups

A reduction in the numbers of entomologists employed by universities and research institutions

An ageing population of practicing entomologists, many characterised by grey beards and spectacles

Lack of understanding by the general public about why the study of entomology is important to their well-being

A lack of teaching of invertebrate biology at secondary schools and at undergraduate level

A lack of government funding

A tendency for members of the general public to scream and/or flinch when insects enter their personal space

A tendency for members of the general public to kill insects when found in their personal space

A failure by the majority of the population to appreciate the beauty and wonder of insects

Investing hundreds of millions into medical research to keep people alive for longer (a good thing) without thinking about how the extra mouths are going to be fed without similar levels of investment in crop protection research (a very bad thing)

Funding in conservation and whole organism biology and ecology heavily biased towards “large charismatic mega-fauna”

Schoolchildren able to name the ten most endangered mammal species in the world but unable to recognize and name the ten most common insect species in their own country

 

Treatment

A concerted effort by all entomologists to explain to the general public, the educational establishment, funding bodies, the media and  government why we need urgently more entomologists and why the study of entomology is crucially important to our well-being.  I would go further than that and suggest that we need to redouble our outreach activities and to actively lobby those who hold the purse strings and those that represent us in government.  Yes, national entomological societies such as the Royal Entomological Society in the UK are doing much more to promote entomology than they used to but much more remains to be done.  The Amateur Entomologist’s Society  has, I have been reminded, also been active in this area for more than eighty years.  My message to all entomologists is act now before it is too late.

 

Prognosis

At the current level of investment  into treatment and cures, very gloomy.

 

Post script

As I was preparing this article Brigit Strawbridge published an impassioned plea to all of us to take more notice of the little things that run the world

http://www.beestrawbridge.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/mass-insect-extinction-elephant-in-room.html
Post post script

I would be remiss if I did not point out that mycology, plant pathology and plant nematology are also extremely vulnerable and just as important to our well-being as entomology.

 

Post post post script

Entomyopia  is apparently not a new disease, shortly after posting this I came across this gem from 1882.

“No science is so generally slighted, ignored, and misunderstood as is Entomology.  Hysterical humanitarians, novelists, poets, political agitators, classical students, speak in terms of contempt or horror of the “fly-hunters””

Anonymous (1882) The Journal of Science, and Annals of Astronomy, Biology, geology, Industrial Architecture, Manufactures and Technology, 4, 208

 

References

Leather, S. R. (2009). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414.

Leather, S. R. (2013). Institutional vertebratism hampers insect conservation generally; not just saproxylic beetle conservation. Animal Conservation 16: 379-380.

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2009). Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education 43: 51-52.

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2010). Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist 30: 1-2.

 

27 Comments

Filed under Bugbears, EntoNotes, Uncategorized