From lab to field

Last Updated 25 June 2014, 14:39 IST

After the recent ban of dissections by the University Grants Commission the scope for zoology in higher education is viewed with apprehension.

But most of the academicians who lament on deficiency of animal handling skills in a course without dissections fail to understand the background of this decision. Our biosphere faces an increasing rate of biological extinctions and ecosystem alterations resulting from human impacts. In many cases, species become extinct even before they are described.

The current environmental crises depend on a lack of basic understanding of the importance of natural history in biology curriculum. This gap in learning biological sciences purged the opportunity for young scientists to learn the fundamentals that help to understand how the species interact with other components of the environment, and how ecosystem integrity is determined. Meaningful conservation and restoration can’t be accomplished unless we recover the tradition of experiencing nature first-hand in our biology classes.

Those attempting to study the problems of environmental degradation must start from scratch to describe what they are seeing. They should ensure that students experience nature firsthand and be instructed in the fundamentals of the natural sciences. Unfortunately, this training has not been available for so long that students have not been trained so that teachers are now unavailable.
Decline of biosphere

While society is concerned about the rapidly declining quality of the biosphere, there is a rabid political resistance to conservation in favour of short-term economic gain. Representative natural areas are almost impossible to find. A sad commentary is that our ability to respond and to defend natural systems has been eroded within academics by scientific elitism against natural history and systematics. 

Without this grounding, respect for natural history has been lost. In almost all cases, we lack appropriate natural history to evaluate relationships and population thresholds. We have lost virtually all instruction in taxonomy; it is a poignant paradox to Natural Sciences and Conservation

Nature has greater force than education. Animal life can teach us valuable lessons and play a crucial role in providing us our food, shelter and clothes. Establishment of an ecological identity that helps to foster a love of nature is lacking in our pedagogy. Biology teachers in the present scenario should convey the excitement of natural history and the joy of scientific inquiry to students rather than lessons in anatomy or physiology by torturing animals in the lab. In the study of animal sciences; there is a pressing need for shift into bioliteracy through outdoor education. There is evidence that students who receive such place-based education typically outperform their peers.
Biodiversity loss

The past few decades have seen growing concern about loss of biodiversity while simultaneously losing the scientific knowledge base of what it is. Mitigating human-animal conflict is a priority issue for the work on species protection. Since people only protect what they value, the most important and most difficult step in slowing biodiversity loss will be transforming human attitudes about nature. Animals provide companionship, and a sense of wonder. It is the duty of every biology teacher to make their students appreciate this wonderment. 

Hoards of organisms casually perform feats that we can only dream of. Bioluminescent algae splash chemicals together to light their own body lanterns. Arctic fishes and frogs freeze solid and then spring to life, having protected their organs from ice damage. Black bears hibernate all winter without poisoning themselves on their urea, while their polar cousins stay active with a coat of transparent hollow hairs covering their skins like the panes of a green house. Chameleons hide without moving; changing the pattern of their skin to instantly blend with their surroundings. Bees, turtle and birds navigate without maps. Whales and penguins dive without scuba gear.

In many indigenous cultures that have lost an entire generation of people no longer conversant in their languages or cultures; the grandparents are training the young people. In this sense, dedicated professors can still find academic grandparents who can help them learn the natural history. But like the native languages and cultures, we must move quickly if we are to save this critical component of our scientific culture. 

Very few students are offered the opportunity of observing nature and accumulating the background natural history essential to the ecological understanding. Political support for conservation depends on public passion, which must be based on their real understanding of what they wish to protect. The value system within academics must change so that the public also understands natural history. This understanding can only come via our academic system. We cannot protect or restore what we do not know.

(Published 25 June 2014, 14:39 IST)

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