The Evolution of a Naturalist

Reply Fri 6 Dec, 2002 07:51 pm
I think that the article from the NY Times below, quoted in its entirety, is important enough to be read here, in this forum. The link to the article is at the bottom. While some of this may be seen as tongue in cheek, it does provide a worthwhile perspective.

"On the Taxonomy of the Naturalist (Amateur or Official)

November 19, 2002

With the decline of nature comes the rise of naturalists.

There may be fewer songbirds and swamps, fewer forests and
meadows. But naturalists are everywhere, at parks small and
large, at nature centers, leading bird walks and teaching
children about the habits of squirrels and frogs.

Like plants that put forth more seeds in hard times, nature
itself is spawning its own tour guides, it seems, as a form
of self-defense.

Many naturalists wear badges, so they are relatively easy
to spot in the field. They are not, however, well
categorized. There is no commonly accepted taxonomy of
naturalists, no field guide to the writers of field guides.

If there were, it might include some of these figures:

¶The common naturalist, similar to the long-necked docent,
most often sighted at a park or museum.

¶The professional naturalist, sometimes considered a hybrid
of the park ranger and elementary school science teacher.

¶The self-taught naturalist, who often runs a center for
wilderness survival, natural foods, personal growth and
aboriginal religion.

And at the top of this fanciful ecological system, the
greater and lesser writing naturalists.

The lesser variants usually produce pamphlets, books on
bugs for children or catalogs of favorite canoe and kayak
trips. The greater are often research scientists with more
than a touch of poet and philosopher.

Dr. Edward O. Wilson is one example. With all his many
accomplishments - ant expert, conservationist, theoretician
of behavior and evolution and author many times over - he
titled his autobiography "Naturalist," which suggests where
his heart lies.

From one point of view, the most interesting thing about
naturalists may be that their evolution continues. In fact,
a completely new variety has emerged recently, which given
the chance, may one day amount to a full-blown species.
This is the certified naturalist.

Over the last five to 10 years, a number of state-run and
private programs have sprung up that offer naturalist or
master naturalist certificates. Some people participate in
those programs to enhance their professional lives, as
teachers or park rangers (this hybridization is common).

But most, and here is where speciation may be seen in
action, do it for their own satisfaction.

They are amateurs unsatisfied with mere dilettantism. Like
the typical modern American adult learner - a phrase used
among the teachers of such learners - they not only want
greater knowledge, but they also want it to be official.

For example, the Morton Arboretum in Chicago, in
cooperation with the Field Museum and the Chicago Botanic
Garden, offers a fairly rigorous program involving courses
and field trips over a period of two years that results in
a naturalist certificate.

Most of the students pursue it just because they are
interested, says Jeffrey Skibins of the arboretum.

"They can say, `I know a little bit about it, because I
have a naturalist certificate,' " Mr. Skibins said.

Florida and Texas offer state programs quite a bit easier
than Chicago's (40 hours' total of classes and field trips)
and a good deal more generous in the qualification they
offer, master naturalist.

Audubon society chapters, environmental institutes and
other organizations often have their own programs.

Texas is planning to go national next year, teaching other
states how to imitate its success. Since 1998, Texas has
granted more than 2,000 certificates. Michelle Haggerty,
director of the Texas program, said, "This program has
doubled in size each year since I've been here."

Naturalists, in uncertified form, have been around for
centuries. They appear in the cultural record at least as
early as the 17th century, as natural philosophers who
found explanations for the world in the world itself rather
than in the supernatural realm.

Soon, however, the meaning of the term changed, according
to Dr. Lawrence Buell, a professor of English and American
literature and language at Harvard and the author of "The
Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the
Formation of American Culture," among other books.

"As early as the Renaissance," Dr. Buell wrote in response
to a question sent by e-mail, "one finds the term used more
or less synonymously with student of the biological world
(though `biology' does not enter the language until later),
and by the 19th century this has become the predominant

He continued, "As life science became more professionalized
and academic during the 19th century, however, the term
"naturalist" increasingly came to take on its modern sense
of either a professional or an amateur enthusiast in the
field (as distinct from the lab) for whom direct
observation of the natural world, cataloging, specimen
gathering and collecting are primary."

It was in the 19th century that the classic naturalist
emerged and flourished, the ancestral prototype from which
all contemporary varieties of naturalist have evolved - the
"great Victorian naturalist."

This group is now extinct. But those who belonged to it are
still easy to identify, because the phrase "great Victorian
naturalist" always precedes their names. For instance, a
Web site devoted to one of them notes, "In his classic 1863
travel book `The Naturalist on the River Amazon,' the great
Victorian naturalist Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892)
predicted that . . ."

Never mind what he predicted. The point is he was great
enough to undertake predictions. Like others of his
fraternity, he traveled far, saw much and published a
classic. Even better known G.V.N.'s are Richard Owen, a
dinosaur man, and Alfred Russel Wallace, an evolutionary
theorist who was completely overshadowed by a contemporary
who was without doubt the greatest G.V.N. of all, Charles

Naturalists today are most often not scientific innovators,
although some scientific innovators like E. O. Wilson are
also naturalists. But the term has always included both
professionals and amateurs, profound thinkers and casual
nature lovers. What has been missing, until now, is a taste
for the classroom as strong as that for the woods and

This interest is particularly evident in Chicago. The
certificate program there requires about 12 semester-long
courses that cost from $50 to $150. The offerings emphasize
naming and identification, a prime naturalist's basic
skills. But they also cover more technical subjects. The
course description for Conservation Biology reads in part,
"Emphasis will be on understanding how biodiversity relates
to restoration ecology, habitat management and endangered
species preservation."

Another change in behavior that identifies the certified
naturalist may be more significant.

Carol Fialkowski, conservation education director of the
Field Museum, said many students who pursued the naturalist
certificate were involved in Chicago Wilderness, an effort
by 150 organizations and state, federal and local agencies
to manage natural areas in and around Chicago. They are
volunteers - workers rather than observers.

In Texas the master naturalists have to perform 40 hours of
service a year and receive eight hours of advanced
training. Service can be in managing parks or wild game or
in creating new wildlife habitat, wildscaping.

The Florida program, like the one in Texas, does not
require service. But its director, Dr. Martin B. Main, said
volunteering was precisely what many students in the
program had in mind.

From coast to coast, from northern forest to southern
bottomland, today's naturalists are concerned with action.

Whereas earlier naturalists may have been able to enjoy an
evening in the study contemplating a butterfly collection,
their modern descendants are more likely to be out,
certificates in hand, making sure that there is enough
milkweed for the monarch migration.

The change makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. A
changing environment demands changes in behavior. Loss of
habitat is one of the primary threats to many species
worldwide, and because naturalists themselves depend on
nature, all habitat loss is, in effect, a personal threat.

Where would naturalists be without nature? Facing
extinction, with or without certificates.

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Reply Sat 7 Dec, 2002 06:40 pm
heeheehee, that is a funny article!
0 Replies
Reply Sat 7 Dec, 2002 06:43 pm
Funny, but serious also. Very interesting conjunction of seeming opposites. I ran across it when I was looking for sites to put in a general posting for here called "Useful Links". I have some to send to you, also, littlek.
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Reply Sat 7 Dec, 2002 06:46 pm
Serious of course. Have you read Edward Abbey?
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Reply Sat 7 Dec, 2002 07:26 pm
Interesting. Naturalist vs environmentalist? My undergrad degree is in Environmental Studies, or as it was called in the 1970's - Man in the Environment. It seems as if the area of study has become much more specialized considerably in the last 20 - 30 years.

I think i'll stick with being an environmentalist.
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Reply Sat 7 Dec, 2002 07:42 pm
Edward Abbey was a park ranger for some time out west and he wrote of 'tissue blossoms'. A reference to the types of trash the naturalists would leave behind after camping.
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Reply Mon 13 Jan, 2003 01:46 pm
take only pictures leave only footprints....

gosh why cant people get that straight??


I dont know what catagory I would fall into, Im just too complex....is an intersting article however.
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Reply Sun 24 Oct, 2004 06:21 pm
Thank you, Sumac. I'm a great believer in the value of the observant, enthusiastic amateur.

That category includes Mendel and Darwin.
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