, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 291-303
Date: 14 Oct 2009

A pervasive denigration of natural history misconstrues how biodiversity inventories and taxonomy underpin scientific knowledge

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Abstract

Embracing comparative biology, natural history encompasses those sciences that discover, decipher and classify unique (idiographic) details of landscapes, and extinct and extant biodiversity. Intrinsic to these multifarious roles in expanding and consolidating research and knowledge, natural history endows keystone support to the veracity of law-like (nomothetic) generalizations in science. What science knows about the natural world is governed by an inherent function of idiographic discovery; characteristic of natural history, this relationship is exemplified wherever an idiographic discovery overturns established wisdom. This nature of natural history explicates why inventories are of such epistemological importance. Unfortunately, a Denigration of Natural History weakens contemporary science from within. It expresses in the prevalent, pervasive failure to appreciate this pivotal role of idiographic research: a widespread disrespect for how natural history undergirds scientific knowledge. Symptoms of this Denigration of Natural History present in negative impacts on scientific research and knowledge. One symptom is the failure to appreciate and support the inventory and monitoring of biodiversity. Another resides in failures of scientiometrics to quantify how taxonomic publications sustain and improve knowledge. Their relevance in contemporary science characteristically persists and grows; so the temporal eminence of these idiographic publications extends over decades. This is because they propagate a succession of derived scientific statements, findings and/or conclusions - inherently shorter-lived, nomothetic publications. Widespread neglect of natural science collections is equally pernicious, allied with disregard for epistemological functions of specimens, whose preservation maintains the veracity of knowledge. Last, but not least, the decline in taxonomic expertise weakens research capacity; there are insufficient skills to study organismal diversity in all of its intricacies. Beyond weakening research capacities and outputs across comparative biology, this Denigration of Natural History impacts on the integrity of knowledge itself, undermining progress and pedagogy throughout science. Unprecedented advances in knowledge are set to follow on consummate inventories of biodiversity, including the protists. These opportunities challenge us to survey biodiversity representatively—detailing the natural history of species. Research strategies cannot continue to ignore arguments for such an unprecedented investment in idiographic natural history. Idiographic shortcuts to general (nomothetic) insights simply do not exist. The biodiversity sciences face a stark choice. No matter how charismatic its portrayed species, an incomplete ‘Brochure of Life’ cannot match the scientific integrity of the ‘Encyclopedia of Life’.

F. P. D. Cotterill: Formerly Principal Curator of Vertebrates, Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe, PO Box 240, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.