Monday, January 28, 2008

Knowledge, Assumption and Conservation

Is a whale a fish? Every school child knows the answer to this one. It’s common knowledge, right? A whale is not a fish; it’s a mammal.

However, in the early 1800’s this was a hotly contested question, as recounted in science historian D. Graham Burnett’s recently published book, Trying Leviathan. In New York City, in fact, this question was put to trial.

A law requiring all barrels of fish oil in New York to be inspected resulted in a fine being levied against a merchant selling whale oil. When he protested that a whale was not a fish, it set the stage for a court trial in which this question was what was to be decided.

For most New Yorkers, this was one of the most ridiculous questions they had ever heard. Of course the whale was a fish. Based on the taxonomy of the day, and biblical interpretation, how could a whale be anything but? This was considered common sense, common knowledge.

A prominent biologist testified that a whale was emphatically not a fish. But he was widely ridiculed in the popular press and on the street. Whalers and whale product merchants also took the stand, providing testimony based on their observations.

In the end, it took the jury fifteen minutes to decide that a whale was indeed a fish. As one newspaper reported, this “settled the matter once and for all.”

Or not. Taxonomy and biology were on the cusp of a significant revolution. Today, it's true the matter is “settled once and for all,” but not quite the way New Yorkers of 1818 would have imagined.

What does this have to do with conservation? As a scientific endeavor, and one that concerns a wide variety of people, conservation can benefit greatly from a review of science history.

For one, there are likely many opinions we consider “common sense” and “true” that will be proven false in time. This has happened to every generation in history; there’s no reason to believe ours will be different. This should be cause for humility as we move forward, in conservation and in other endeavors.

But it’s also true that knowledge builds on itself. While we are certainly wrong on many things, we will not suddenly go back to thinking that a whale is a fish. That question is settled.

Figuring out what is this genuine knowledge and what is incorrect assumption is the work of many lifetimes.

Conservation science, compared to taxonomy, is relatively new. Taxonomy experienced many fits and starts, as well as trendy ideas that proved to be way off base and resistance to untrendy new ideas that proved to be quite basic. Taxonomic debates continue today but our knowledge in this field is significantly greater than it was in 1818.

Conservation science will likewise experience many fits and starts. And since conservation deals with human values, the issues will be even more complicated. What people want for their world matters a great deal for conservation. And that is not solely a scientific inquiry.

The goal of conserving the diversity of wildlife, clean water and air and a healthy human habitat will only happen with the engagement of many different people from many different backgrounds. There is so much that remains to be answered as to how best to accomplish such hopeful goals—which makes conservation one of humanity’s great undertakings. But as we move forward, we must always remember the past, proceeding with the best information available, and always with a large helping of humility. -- Matt Miller

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