The more you know, the more you marvel


I was prepared to scowl at Jim Robbins' article, "Wildlife Biology Goes High-Tech" (HCN, 12/10/12), after reading the subtitle -- "But has our science lost its soul?"

Science has no "soul." It deals with the physical, tangible universe. As a professional ecologist and longtime teacher, I have grown impatient with the complaint that memorizing all those names decreases our sense of wonder at the natural world.

But when I read the article, I didn't find what I expected. It explained how technology can improve our understanding of wildlife and, thereby, our ability to manage it wisely. There's nothing ethically wrong with knowing the kinship of wolves or the migration patterns of salmon. The story was an interesting and informative treatment of modern wildlife research.

Robbins does lament -- correctly or not -- a tendency for technology to replace on-the-ground fieldwork. I think good technology should complement, not replace, fieldwork. And it usually does. Technology has been brought to bear on many projects that began decades ago with the most rudimentary of field techniques. Now, we're able to know so much more.

Only in his last few paragraphs does Robbins' argument devolve. Yes, there are ethical questions facing wildlife workers. But that's not new. Some of us remember when the way to study mammals or birds was with snap traps or shotguns. Technology has allowed us to observe wild animals less intrusively. Yes, animals sometimes need to be killed in research. But the ethical constraints on this practice in modern field biology are much more stringent than they used to be.

The more we know of nature, the more wonderful it becomes. That's what Darwin meant when he wrote in The Origin of Species: "There is grandeur in this view of life."

Tom Vawter
Professor of biology emeritus Wells College 
Aurora, New York

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