The boundary-less nature of natural history

S Rangaswami

The term ‘natural history’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘Historia’ meaning ‘a passionate, disinterested inquiry’ (Russell). It is in this sense that Herodotus (4th Century BC) wrote his ‘Historia’. Natural history is the most inclusive of sciences in that it claims all scientific knowledge as its province. It began from the time a few among our most primitive ancestors started inquiring about natural phenomena like alternating days and nights, the waxing and waning of the moon, lightning and thunder, earthquakes, etc., and dreaded some of them. Natural theology was born when the forces of nature were deified to appease them and keep them in good humour through sacrificial rites. Later this blossomed into natural philosophy as a few bright humans began to philosophize and look for the forces behind nature’s processes, predictable as they seemed. The first among sciences, astronomy, had its origin when Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo proved that our galaxy, the solar system is ‘heliocentric’ and not ‘geocentric’, thereby incurring the hostility of the church. This was in the 15th century.

As Ernst Mayr, has pointed out, with the publication of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1859, and the subsequent additions to Darwinism like Gregor Mendel’s patterns of heredity, the discovery of DNA which establishes the unity of life beyond doubt, from bacteria to humans, natural history entered mainstream science.

Natural history has no boundaries. It is one science in which specialization does not exclude general knowledge. Those who study it are naturalists. It encompasses all realms of nature and all disciplines of science as well as their groupings like physical chemistry, biochemistry, astrophysics, molecular biology (which itself is based on the interaction of bacteriology and x-ray crystallography),etc. Natural history’s aim is “To Observe, Inquire and Describe”. Experimentation is outside its scope. It is certainly not the history of nature. With this let us pass on to the major issue of the biosphere and its protection from environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity.

Biosphere refers to the thin zone of life surrounding the earth’s surface. The word was coined by the Russian physicist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernardsky. From the time modern humans, Homo sapiens, arrived on the scene some 100,000 to 150,000 years ago, they began to alter the environment to suit their growing needs. Hominid species that preceded them like Homo erectus, H. habilis, etc., and other mega fauna did not interfere significantly with the environment. The enlargement of the human brain which resulted in the evolution of H. sapiens with their skilled hands, versatile bodies and inquisitive minds brought into play a new force of a destructive kind which began ravaging the environment. Compared to the chimpanzee’s brain size (325 – 650cc), modern human’s brain size is more than three times (1200-1500, even 2000cc). Three facts, viz., the gain of erect posture, dexterous hands and language ability, have given humans the top position in the ladder of evolution.

As they gained knowledge of agriculture, clearing and burning of forests to acquire land for agricultural use and in modern times for industrial use became common. In the words of Edward Wilson, “H. sapiens have turned out to be the serial killers of the biosphere. We are currently losing an estimated 30,000 species a year of the world’s biodiversity of plants and animals. This is the worst extinction rate after an asteroid strike on earth, 65 million years ago, which wiped out the dinosaurs along with countless plants and animals.”

Biodiversity represents the very foundation of human existence. Besides the profound ethical and aesthetic implications, it is clear that the loss of biodiversity has serious economic and social costs. “Biodiversity manufactures the atmosphere, clears the water, creates the fertile soil and above all, this creates a living world on which our own lives depend. Understanding this realm of biodiversity, making proper use of it, enjoying it, celebrating it, is among the many reasons why we should look to science, education and spirituality for solving our environmental problems. Not to do this, and to stand and watch the world’s billion year heritage go down the drain, is the folly our descendants will be least likely to forgive us.” (Wilson).

Environmentalism is a movement which is growing fast globally. Humans, with their endless greed, have turned the Biosphere into Anthroposphere. What can we as teachers do to promote environmental awareness and ecological sensitivity in our students? To begin with the teacher herself/himself must be aware of the beauty, marvel and mystery in all things in nature, be it the bee or the butterfly or the birds, the appeal of the star-studded sky or a rainbow. The list is endless. We are all biologists in a sense. “The awareness of the environment requires first and foremost, the ability to wonder at the beauty and mystery in all the things in nature. The child is born with this faculty and we must further develop it in him/her. The sense of wonder is exceptional to human beings. No other animal has this. A chimpanzee, our closest relation in biological evolution, has curiosity, not wonder. To wonder means to begin to understand and be eager to know more about it. In course of time this feeling of wonder can grow into values beyond environmental awareness, values- aesthetic, intellectual, religious or spiritual”*.

Reverting to natural history, imagine Mother Nature writing a book “The Book of Life”. The striking feature of this book might be that every page will be green on one side and red on the other The green is due to chlorophyll and the red due to haemoglobin. Chlorophyll has the capacity to absorb the energy of the sun’s rays striking the leaf of the plant and with the help of carbon-di-oxide in the atmosphere and water, manufactures and stores the carbohydrates, fats and proteins essential for sustenance of animal life. Herbivores consume ’the green’ and generate ‘the red’. No green means no red. Chemically both have the same molecular structure, except that each molecule of chlorophyll has an atom of magnesium and each molecule of haemoglobin has an atom of iron. Life from plant to animal to human has been flourishing for billennia. Max Ferdinand Perutz discovered that the living haemoglobin molecules – human or horse- are made of 574 amino acids in four chains. The breath of life requires in each red blood cell about 289 million hemoglobin molecules and there are about 160 trillion red blood cells in a pint of blood. It took 23 years of research for Perutz to find these details. From plants to animals to humans – chlorophyll holds the secret of life.

To conclude, students of natural history can derive much satisfaction, even inspiration from the following lines which deserve the title “A Hopeful Future”:

All men cannot be poets, inventors or philanthropists but all men can join in the gigantic and god-like work-the progress of Creation, progress in the science of Divinity, which is the prerogative of human consciousness. Its axioms are:

  • Whoever improves his own nature, improves the Universe of which he is a part;
  • he who strives to subdue his vile passions – vile remnants of our four footed life;
  • he who cultivates social affections;
  • he who endeavours to better his condition and to make his children wiser and happier than himself;
  • whatever may be his motive, he will not have lived in vain and will certainly be worthy of the name given- Homo sapiens- rich in WISDOM and a worthy citizen of Nature and a Patriot of Planet Earth. (Source untraceable)

These lines convey the philosophy of Natural History which rests on three core values – humility, responsibility and compassion.

*These lines are from the address of Mr. B. Vijayaraghavan IAS Retd., at the workshop on Biodiversity, Conservation for Schools at Rishi Valley on Dec 29, 1998.

Prof. S Rangaswami is Founder Director, Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History Rishi Valley.

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