The natural history conundrum revisited: mammalogy begins at home

Weigl, P. D.

This commentary is the text of an oral presentation delivered at the 88th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists in Brookings, South Dakota, on 22 June 2008 to recognize receipt of the Joseph Grinnell Award for Excellence in Education in Mammalogy. Much has been written by previous recipients of the Joseph Grinnell Award about the declining interest in natural history and organismic biology in academia and in society in general. In the course of 40 years of university teaching and student advising, as well as field research with students on 5 continents, I too have witnessed this increasing abandonment of the natural world. This phenomenon seems to stem from changes in the early experiences of children and young people over the past 40 years and, thus, I would advance the premise that mammalogy and other branches of natural history begin at home. Three types of learning seem important to the developing mind. First is the time and opportunity for unstructured, unforced exploration of the local environment—time to develop from the inside out rather than merely as a shell coated with a number of intellectual veneers. Second is learning from the example and caring instruction of enthusiastic parents, teachers, and mentors. Third is the transfer of information—from personal experience, reading, teaching, and selectively from a vast array of electronic sources—once again with time for synthesis and contemplation. All 3 types of learning appear to be critical to an appreciation of the natural world. Unfortunately, these processes have been grossly distorted by the loss of outdoor experience, by parental fears and ambitions, and by a kind of electronic idolatry associated with constant entertainment, instant gratification, and virtual relationships. Such an upbringing may affect not only a child’s physical and mental health, but his or her future commitment to preserving the natural world as an adult. Published studies of ‘‘nature deficit disorder’’ and ‘‘videophilia’’ now describe this phenomenon and challenge families, schools, and scientific organizations to respond in a timely way.

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Weigl, P. D.. 2009. The natural history conundrum revisited: mammalogy begins at home. Journal of Mammalogy 90:265-269.