I am reading and enjoying a fascinating memoir at the moment. If you’d like to read it, look for “A Curious Boy: The Making of a Scientist” by Richard Fortey. The author is a contemporary of mine, just a couple of years older, and was a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. I find many of his early-life experiences quite similar to mine and the description of the school he went to is uncannily close the one I was educated at. It was indeed a different world.

Anyway – he is a world expert on Trilobites but he is also a bit of a biological polymath who enjoys getting outside on fungus forays and watch birds and identifying orchids and the like. When we grew up the countryside was a much richer place than it is today for so many reasons. The loss of biodiversity that has occurred in the past 50 years was all avoidable. In one chapter, after recently visiting a place on the Berkshire/Warwickshire border near his old home which was then a wonderland of wildflowers and insects and birds he finds it sterile and reduced to tangled brambles and fields of barley with not a flower in sight. Saddening.

He writes the following :

“I have known scientists who regard enthusiasm for the identification of organisms as a kind of stamp collecting. This is not intended to be flattering. They ask: what is the need to know all those damned names? The real business is with sequencing the genome, identifying chemical pathways in organelles, crunching vast sets of data in supercomputers, and other research at the cutting edge. Nineteenth-century vicars did the naming stuff. I have wondered whether some of these critics might regard the extinction of species as rather a good thing, since it would reduce the complexity of natural systems available for analysis. The issue is more than the well-rehearsed division between ‘whole organism biologists’ and ‘scientific reductionists’. I have been on walks with dedicated professional botanists who cannot identify the commonest wildflowers; identification has never been part of their culture. It would be harder for them to experience the empathy with the natural world that I have described earlier in this book. Perhaps they have never felt the harmony that comes with a throng of different flowers buzzing with dozens of insects, a sense of countless natural livings earned in countless ways. Life is polyglottal, symphonic, inventive, and inevitably diverse. Complexity and richness are the hallmarks of life itself.”

I find this so depressing. There are degree courses in botany (and similar fields) in the UK and elsewhere, but their courses are heavily focussed on cellular biology and biochemistry. Worthy subjects all, and as a biologist who put food on the table by working at the cellular level, chained to a microscope most days I cannot decry the importance of that expertise … but a rounded biologist should also be able to know about life in the “field” and to have done some work at a minimum just going out and identifying species. I don’t suggest for an instant that all biologists become taxonomists in their field of expertise, but they ought really to have a passing feeling for such matters. It is so much more than mere “biological stamp collecting”.

Very sad – I am glad I grew up when I did. My current interests in retirement are far from the microscope and focussed on, yes, the stamp collecting of local species – hence my 1000 Species project (link below). Real biology in other words, the stuff I enjoyed as a youth which led me into the career I made my own. It’s good to be able to get back in retirement to the real stuff out of the laboratory – even though I am not a nineteenth-century vicar.


Fortey also says … and this speaks to my soul:

“I instinctively knew that naming was the first part of understanding. According to the Book of Genesis Adam named all the animals before Eve was created: evidently, the ancient scribes appreciated that taxonomy provides the key to grasping the world. Without such a foundation, humans wander blindly in an unstructured wilderness.”