The ASN standalone meeting features an evening debate between two pairs of people, taking opposite sides of some proposition. This year’s proposition was (paraphrasing) “It’s no longer possible to be a naturalist in a world on which humans are having such large effects.” As another example, the first debate several years ago considered (paraphrasing) “Species richness on continents reflects ecological not evolutionary limits.” At it’s best, with the right people (who take it seriously but not too seriously), it’s a great format. It’s a low-stakes way for people to air opposing viewpoints, in a way that both entertains outsiders and gets them thinking and talking.
The ASN is currently looking for topic suggestions for the next debate. So, got any ideas?
Here are a couple of opening bids:
- “Species interactions are not stronger and more specialized in the tropics”.
- “Ecologists and evolutionary biologists should stop pursuing fundamental research in order to focus on pressing applied problems”
Please do chime in with your ideas!
We should stop mowing our lawns.
Afraid I don’t quite follow. Can you elaborate?
Oh wow, it seems like last year’s question is quite a deep one. Do you remember the sorts of arguments made, and if one side seemed to have a stronger case?
The debaters approached this year’s topic with a mixture of seriousness and humor. I wouldn’t call the arguments “deep”, just because that might suggest the tone of the debate was super-serious, which it wasn’t. But I do think the debaters on both sides made the best cases possible.
The pre-debate audience vote indicated a large majority came in feeling that yes, you can still be a naturalist in the 21st century. The post-debate vote indicated some shift of opinion towards the view that no, you can no longer be a naturalist in the 21st century, but that remained a minority view.
The main arguments offered in defense of the view that you can indeed still be a naturalist in the 21st century were:
-humans have been having big impacts on large swathes of the planet since long before there even were “naturalists” in the contemporary sense. “Naturalist” has *never* meant “person who studies bits of the living world that are unaffected by humans”.
-there’s still plenty of natural history to be studied even in heavily human-impacted environments. One example was a classic, massive long-term dataset of observations of plant-pollinator interactions, collected by a US midwesterner in his town and neighboring towns.
The main arguments offered for the view that no, you can’t be a natural historian in the 21st century, were:
-the dictionary definition of “natural” means (roughly) “not made or affected by humans”. No such places exist any more. For instance, even the most isolated island archipelagos have trash washing up on their beaches, etc.
-the nature of human impacts on the environment has changed qualitatively since the mid-20th century. For instance, plastic waste didn’t exist before then.
-Human impacts have also been growing more rapidly in magnitude since the mid-20th century.
My own view is that you can still be a naturalist in the 21st century. For the reasons laid out by the debaters who spoke in favor of that view. Also because “naturalist” is a human construct, and so it’s very hard to make the case that the many people today who self-identify as naturalists are *wrong* to do so. I do think there are (rare) situations in which people’s self-identifications can be questioned. (The one that comes to mind is that even quite affluent people in the US tend to self-identify as “middle class”.) But I don’t think this is one of those situations. I suspect if you said to most self-identified naturalists “You’re wrong to think of yourself as a naturalist, because pristine nature no longer exists”, they’d look at you funny. Finally, I think you can still be a naturalist in the 21st century because the whole reason we know about, and lament, many human impacts on the environment is thanks to naturalists. If there were no such thing as a naturalist, we would be blissfully ignorant of the many ways in which our world is becoming less “natural”.
Thanks for the detailed response! Quite an interesting topic, with a lot of gray in the middle.
Ecologists have gained a much greater understanding of how the natural world works, over the last hundred years.
Hmm. My first instinct was to think “man, I wouldn’t want to have to argue against that proposition!” But then I stopped and thought, well, how *would* I argue against that proposition? Maybe go back to Darwin, Wallace, Clements, Elton, et al. and look for indications that they’d already thought of or knew about most of the most important theoretical and empirical claims in ecology today? Like, maybe they didn’t get all the details right, but they clearly got the gist. As part of making that case, I’d probably try to lean very hard on the word “understanding”, arguing that we don’t necessarily *understand* a lot more than Darwin or Elton or whoever just because we now have much more and better *data*.
I still think it would be an uphill battle to make that case. But maybe it’s not as obviously a totally lost cause as I thought at first blush?
Your question raises a broader issue: what are we looking for in a good debate topic? Are we looking for a topic on which there is a pre-existing, fairly even split of views among audience members? Or are we looking for a topic on which there’s a consensus that a good contrarian debater might be able to shake up? Your suggestion falls into the latter category, I think.
I think you’re right in your framing of this question, Jeremy. Although I lean towards the contrarian view.