Natural history: Observations and reflections on life and nature – Part I: Introduction

Taken at an ecotourism park In western Guizhou Province (贵州省), China
One teacher that has had the most positive influence on me over the years is Sue Hutchins, my Biology instructor at Itasca Community College. Her thoughtful lectures and teaching passion constituted my first palatable introduction to the principles of ecology and evolution. And her elaborate field trips to explore the organic vibrance of forest, bog and stream ecosystems helped me appreciate the wonder of a scientific approach to understanding the natural world. I performed well in the class, enjoyed the hands-on activities (including wading into freezing cold streams to collect tiny bugs for lab analysis), and signed up for the second instalment the following semester.
Bamboo stand between rice terraces in Longji (龙脊) near Guilin (桂林), China

On theory

The textbook in Mrs. Hutchins’ Introduction to Biology class framed the subject quite appropriately for an arts and humanities junkie such as myself (At that time, I was mostly interested in music, history and theology). I was intrigued by the textbook’s claim that biology is the natural science most closely related to the humanities and social sciences, and I was also drawn to the idea that many of the question posed by biologists, e.g. comprehending the intricate relationships between species in an ecosystem, or investigating why sloths climb down their tree once a week to defecate, tend not have as concrete answers as the those presented in physics or chemistry.

Reading Charles Darwin‘s “On the Origin of Species” (1859) and Richard Dawkins‘ “The Ancestor’s Tale” (2004), both recommended by Mrs. Hutchins, had a profound and formative effect on my thinking when it comes to understanding the dynamics of ecosystems, organisms and genes. Now, because evolution is so widely misunderstood (especially in the US), I think it is important to mention that the theory does not necessarily debase religious belief. For example, both the Catholic and United Methodist churches have officially accepted that organisms, including human beings, adapt according to the law of Natural Selection. I should add that I deplore any worldview that would distort Darwin’s hugely important theory to serve any purposes of nationalism, ethnocentrism or genetic discrimination of any kind. Those who would so presumptuously think they know what traits natural selection will favor in future generations are in a sense trying to predict the future. For me, evolution is a unifying theory of life that offers a framework for understanding the plants, creatures, and biological processes that we can observe around us every day.

This adorable dog is unfortunately chained, with little slack, outside of a local bicycle shop in Zhuhai’s (珠海) Tangjia village (唐家), China

What I find most constructive about understnaing nature through the lens of biology is learning about the grand processes and history of life: from the pre-organic primordial soup of several billion years ago, to today’s astounding array of species and varieties, which have been augmented and speciated through millions and millions of years of environmental pressures and genetic mutation. At the risk of souding cliche, I’m reminded of the scene from Steven Spielberg’s classic film “Jurassic Park” (1993) (I haven’t read the book unfortunately), when character Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) questions the park’s methods of controling the breeding of dinosaurs, arguing that “Life finds a way.” For me, Malcolm’s dramatic argument captures the gist of what studying living things is about: the awe-inspiring persistence and adaptability of life. I think this is also what Darwin thought so compelling about natural history (Spoiler alert: Try reading the last paragraph from “On the Origin of Species”)

Winter afternoon sun shines through mixed forest on a hilltop near the shore of Burntside Lake, near Ely, Minnesota.

Not an expert

Had I been more proactive in studying chemistry during college, I believe I could very well have majored in biology. But in the end I decided to return to the humanities and social sciences and complete a BA in Language and International Studies. Currently, my interest in botany, zoology and ecology is solely amateur, and I would consider Sir David Attenborough‘s wonderfully photographed wildlife documentaries to be more appropriate to my level. So, in these blog entries, you are more likely to see photos of plants and animals that I have encountered during my travels in China, the US and Hong Kong, along with what I hope is largely jargon-free commentary. I’ll try to post in “Natural History” once each week. Enjoy, and remember that wherever you are on the planet, whether a seemingly barren desert, the downtown of a bustling urban center, or an isolated mountain forest, you can observe and appreciate Earth’s immense and ever-unfolding natural history.


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