Thursday, May 08, 2014

Natural History in the Wasteland

This month my Lunchtime Lecture focuses on the development of American Natural History from the 18th Century to the present. One early driver for American natural history was the desire to refute Buffon's claim that American nature was degenerate. As Jefferson put it in Notes On the State of Virginia - "The opinion advanced by the Count de Buffon, is 1. That the animals common both to the old and new world, are smaller in the latter. 2. That those peculiar to the new, are on a smaller scale. 3. That those which have been domesticated in both, have degenerated in America: and 4. That on the whole it exhibits fewer species." The history of this idea of degenerate nature is well told in Lee Alan Dugatkin's book Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose [get the book to learn about the moose episode].

As I work on the lecture, I hear echoes of European scorn in the hatred of "non-native species" and the dread of "invasive species" as they invade our homeland. The power of mythology lays behind part of the appeal of scientific ideas. And for those of us enchanted by the ecology of wastelands, we run up against resistance grounded in mythic belief in good nature and bad nature - pure and degraded. At least, the points that Jefferson enumerated could be factually refuted, even though facts alone did not dissuade believers in the theory of degeneracy. A similar challenge exists for pushing Americans beyond cherished beliefs in good, pure, untouched, harmonious, balanced nature. Where the resilience and dynamics of wasteland ecology enchants me, there is much work to do to invigorate the narrative of resilient nature and the charms of marginal nature.

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