Tune Out, Turn Off, and Get Outside

Our modern digital tools have made us a lot more productive, but they can’t replace time spent in nature.
Observing how the Indian leafwing (Kallima paralekta) butterfly’s appearance resembled dead leaves, helped British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s work on evolutionary theory. (Photo: James Laing/Flickr)
Jun 17, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

The other day I was listening to a National Public Radio report about a California land trust trying to keep tabs on its population of red-legged frogs, a threatened species. It used to be that the only practical way to count them was for trained biologists to hang around the marsh listening for their calls. Now the land trust does it automatically, with a system of microphones and a computer algorithm that picks out the distinctive red-legged-frog “ribbit” (more like a “chuck-chuck-chuck”).

It was a promising report for underfunded land managers and conservationists everywhere. But for me, it also raised one of the great dilemmas in modern wildlife biology: Technology giveth, but technology also taketh away.

Wildlife biologists can now cover vastly more territory with the help of listening devices, camera traps, drones, satellites, remote DNA testing, and other technological shortcuts. This doesn’t just save time and money. It also clues them in to the presence of species they didn’t even suspect existed in a particular habitat, it helps them catch and convict poachers, and it provides them with the sort of big data—quantifiable, verifiable sightings—that gets respect from so-called hard sciences.

But the inevitable corollary is that biologists no longer spend as much time hanging around in marshes listening for red-legged frogs, because they are too busy monitoring data on a computer screen.

“Like probably most of you reading this journal, I do not get out in the field much anymore,” complained a writer in Conservation Biology. “It is easy to rationalize the life of armchair biology (now better called keyboard ecology).... Computer modeling produces publishable results much quicker, anyway.” The alarming thing is that Reed F. Noss, a conservation biologist at the University of Central Florida, wrote that lament 20 years ago, in 1996, before the internet and the iPhone had taken over our lives.

The problem is infinitely worse today, and the fears Noss voiced then ring even more true: “What do our students lose when we teach them how to model population viability and analyze remote sensing data, but not how to distinguish the song of the Bay-breasted Warbler from that of the Cape May, the track of the mink from that of the marten, the taste of the birch twig from that of the cherry?” He feared that conservation biologists, like their old rivals in molecular biology, would become technology nerds “with no firsthand knowledge of natural history.”

He was right. In the mid-20th century, colleges routinely required biology majors to take courses in natural history, which also dominated introductory biology textbooks. Today, according to a 2014 study in the journal BioScience, “the majority of universities and colleges in the United States have no natural history requirements for a degree in biology,” and the natural world has lost 40 percent of its former space in introductory biology textbooks.

Instead, biology majors read about molecular biology, theoretical and experimental biology, and ecological modeling—that is, what the natural world looks like to a DNA sequencing machine or a computer algorithm. Even environmental science majors now feel inadequately educated about the natural world. As Noss predicted in 1996: “I cannot help feeling uneasy that the middle-aged biologists” of that era “may be the last generation to have...been taught serious natural history.... The naturalists are dying off and have few heirs.” Add that to the steady decline in the other traditional ways of getting to know the natural world—hunting and fishing—and we are entering a new realm of ignorance.

So, what do we do about it? I contacted Noss and asked for a few ideas. (This was by email, I regret to admit. Even phoning seems so 20th century now.) Both he and Harry Greene, a Cornell University herpetologist and author of Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art, gleefully replied that they were about to retire in large part so they could spend more time in the field.

During his teaching career, added Noss, he kept sane by making field time part of his routine. “I chose to live in a small town 10 miles from campus, which has several natural and semi-natural areas next door, with several trailheads for the very uncrowded Florida National Scenic Trail,” he wrote. “I work from home as much as I can get away with, ignore snide comments from colleagues who ask ‘hello, do you work here?’ and take walks several times a week on and off the Florida Trail to practice natural history.”

Summer in particular should be field time, added John Anderson, an ecologist at the College of the Atlantic. At the summer field station he leads on Great Duck Island in the Gulf of Maine, Anderson strictly limits student computer and phone time, even supplying paper, pen, and stamps to acquaint them with another vanishing art: the writing of letters. He also bans “i-anything that has ear-buds. Why? Well, I am trying to reinforce the idea that natural history is multi-dimensional. It isn’t just visual. So if you are bopping along to the Soundtrack of Your Life, you just aren’t as present on site as you need to be.” You do not hear the “chuck-chuck-chuck” of red-legged frogs, or—in the case of Great Duck Island—the purring, chattering, and squealing of nesting Leach’s storm petrels.

If separating people from their digital addictions seems draconian, bear in mind that seeing butterflies mimicking dead leaves led Alfred Russel Wallace to devise his theory of evolution by natural selection. For Charles Darwin, coauthor of the most momentous idea in the history of science, it was about looking at so many barnacles, that he once wrote, “I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before.” For G. Evelyn Hutchinson, it was scooping up water beetles that eventually made him the father of modern ecology. For John Ostrom, founder of the modern dinosaur revolution, it was staring endlessly at fossil birds and dinosaurs until he began to see how they were the same thing.

But none of this is just for scientists or field biologists. If you want big ideas (Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” a René Redzepi salad), shut down the computer and turn to nature for a while instead. The answer—or at least the relaxation you need to find the answer—is there.