Biologists Need To Learn About Whole Organisms Too

Recently, I wrote about how we are facing an insect biomass crisis. Well, this isn’t going to help (boldface mine):

A new study published in the journal American Entomologist has some sobering news about insects and intro-to-bio books: They simply aren’t represented. Despite the critical role the critters play in everything from the food chain to disease, they’re overshadowed by vertebrates, taking up less than 0.6 percent of introductory biology texts. And despite the sheer number of insects and their impact on Earth and its inhabitants, mentions of insects in introductory biology textbooks have dwindled over the last 100 years.

Kiran Gangwani and Jennifer Landin, researchers at North Carolina State University, studied 88 introductory biology textbooks published between 1907 and 2016, then looked for mentions of insects in the books’ sections on biodiversity. If there wasn’t a biodiversity section in the book, they looked for mentions of the word “insect” in passages that discussed life cycle or diversity.

The results showed a clear decline in mentions of insects over the years. Insect-related content fell 75 percent in textbooks published after 2000 as compared to those published before 1965. While the average textbook published between 1900 and 1920 had 32.6 pages of insect diversity content, books published between 2000 and 2017 had just 5.67.

Visual depictions of insects declined, too: 1950, the textbooks studied averaged nearly 19 illustrations of insects, but that fell to fewer than 5.5 after 1970. And some insects get much more face time than others. Butterflies, flies, bees, and ants star most often in today’s textbooks, and grasshoppers—whose anatomy is often used to model how insects’ bodies are organized—appeared a large number of textbooks over the century.

Given the huge number of insects, what did bugs do to get left in the dust? According to co-author Jennifer Landin, an associate professor in North Carolina State University’s department of biological sciences, an increased focus on genetics and cell biology is to blame. “Something had to get cut,” she says. It makes sense: As technology improves, biologists have made astonishing strides in understanding what happens in the cellular realm. As a result, all animals have suffered.

If biologists don’t know natural history, don’t encourage it, and don’t train students in it, I’m not sure who will. Amateur entomologists (and zoologists and botanists) are great, but we do need professionals who understand the biology of organisms ‘pre-blender.’ Unfortunately, the training seems to follow the money. On the other hand, if we don’t appreciate diversity or natural history, we can’t miss it when it’s gone…

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One Response to Biologists Need To Learn About Whole Organisms Too

  1. Marie says:

    Thank you for this post. Obviously, the problem extends to all invertebrates, not just insects. In academia, field guides don’t count as scholarly publications, and thus don’t contribute to tenure and promotions. In addition to illustrations, collections are vital to field biology, Unfortunately, due to funding cuts and scholarly indifference, collections are not being maintained or have been eliminated.

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