Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why we must teach botany

Those of you who follow this blog site regularly may be wondering where I've been for the past several months.  Aside from teaching this semester and having to move my office, I've been finalizing the manuscript of a new book: “Plant Life – A Brief History,” which will be published this winter by Oxford University Press.  My reason for writing this book is the same as for doing this blog site – to explore the mysteries of why plants are the way they are, and to help people around the world to better understand this fascinating and important group of organisms. 

I hope my efforts will also contribute to the Botanical Society of America’s fight against “plant blindness,” and its campaign to “reclaim the name” of botany. (go to So what’s all that about?  There has been a serious decline in the teaching of botany in university biology departments over the past 40 years.  The  reasons for that are complex, but primarily the result of the burgeoning growth of cellular, genetic, and developmental biology, as well as advances in theoretical ecology, that have come to occupy an increasing share of an undergraduate’s budget of course requirements.  This is on top of the traditional bias that plants are less interesting or less important than animals.

Like fine arts and PE in elementary schools, botany and other taxonomically defined classes are viewed as luxuries that can be cut if needed – and they have been. In some universities, even the introductory botany course has fallen by the wayside, leaving only a week of plants in an introductory biology sequence.  Even that is typically taught reluctantly by a young (or old) faculty member who is only one chapter ahead of the students in his or her own removal from plant blindness.  

The excuse is often given that “most of our undergraduates these days are pre-med.” That doesn’t excuse a department from providing a well-rounded background for those who plan to go into research or teaching.  Moreover, when courses in medical botany are offered, they are very popular, and provide to our future doctors, nurses, etc., a vital broadening of perspective on the nature of medicine.

Plant blindness then refers to a general lack of awareness of plants, particularly of their diversity and the many unique ways they contribute to the balance of the natural world, as well as to our own societal and individual well-being.  It is akin to other forms of blindness, like the much deplored inability of young people to point out Iraq, or even Texas, on a map.  Our undergraduates, graduate students, applicants for our vacant positions, and ultimately our fellow faculty members increasingly have less working knowledge of plants.

There’s no question that this is bad at all levels.  At the general level, failure to understand both the fundamental biology of plants, and the significance of plant diversity, leads to superficial and erroneous interpretation of environmental issues, abuse of our food supply chain, nutritional and medicinal resources, poorly designed and maintained landscapes, and numerous other issues vital to our survival.   K-12 teachers turned out by universities without a good background in plants will reinforce and amplify the blindness. 

At the professional level, biologists may overlook cellular, genetic, and developmental processes, or environmental adaptations, unique to plants.  Consideration of how plants do things can provide a breakthrough when animal or microbial models hit a dead end.  A great comedian draws upon his or her own accumulation of diverse observations of culture and human behavior to synthesize a unique and entertaining routine.  A master medical diagnostician draws upon a vast pool of specific information about symptom and their causes, to identify and cure an ill patient.  And so too, the most brilliant and imaginative biological researcher will draw upon his or her knowledge of diverse organisms to ask new questions, or to find different solutions to existing questions. 

We must of course teach critical thinking and the scientific method in science, but there must also be a place for teaching awareness of diversity, and providing opportunities to build a pool of knowledge about different organisms. 

In addition, the lack of awareness of plant diversity and the fact that every species interacts uniquely, whether subtly or dramatically, with its environment can lead to serious errors.  It can lead researchers to oversimplify the role of plants in ecosystems, or worse to fail to obtain accurate identifications of the plants studied (see Bortolus 2008, for some classic blunders).  Misidentification links the study plants, as well as the results of the study, to the wrong body of literature.
The “reclaim the name” movement reflects the parallel decline of respect for botany among our biological colleagues, and the impression that botany as a subject matter is old-fashioned and no longer important.  Will a name change help?  It seems that everything in our society gets renamed every few years in order to buy new respect.  Used cars are now “pre-owned” and I’m not sure what graveyards are called these days.  Some of my colleagues insist that we call our discipline “Plant Science,” but to me that has an applied, agricultural ring to it.  I haven’t seen any of my zoologist friends opt for “Animal Science,” which if I remember correctly from my years at Cornell is the study of dairy cows! 

The counterpart to zoology is “phytology,” which has never caught on as the name of our discipline.  If we ditch botany, what do we do with botanical gardens?  “Plant gardens” just sounds dumb, and people would just drive past a ”phytarium,” having no idea what the heck it was.  

I, for one, am a BOTANIST.

The term botany has indeed evolved into something that encompasses the big picture of plant life, of the unique attributes that unite plants, as well as of the multiplicity of unique ways in which plants have adapted for survival.  This is what distinguishes those of us who call ourselves botanists from cell biologists, geneticists, etc. who happen to be working with plant models at present.  Being a botanist, however, is not a research specialty, but a label that can be appended to any researcher who has had a broad training in botany, and/or a sufficient interest in the big picture to self-educate.  

That broad training – a full curriculum in plant anatomy, morphology, physiology and taxonomy, is harder to find these days, but does survive in departments affiliated with agricultural colleges and a few other refuges of enlightenment.  Let’s hope they continue the tradition!

So outside of those botanical monasteries, what do we do with our 15 minutes in the spotlight?  What are the essentials of botany that every undergraduate should have?  Earlier, I posted the “Essential features of plants.”  Those, at least, we need to impart in our week in introductory biology.  We need to avoid getting bogged down at that level in too much descriptive details, but perhaps demonstrate, with some well-chosen examples,  how different plants can provide radically different solutions to the same problems of survival.

If we are able to provide a full semester introduction to botany, we should do so aimed at a broad audience of science majors, from biology to geology and anthropology, with minimal prerequisites.  Beyond that, botanists in our faculty can craft more specialized courses based on their own background and experience. 

The introductory course, beyond the essentials, will have an emphasis on evolution,  diversity and ecology.  Discovery and explanation of adaptive differences among plants is what makes botany so exhilarating, and what can come as startling revelations to the plant blind.  Again, we must pull back a bit from the details that fill textbooks designed for botany majors. 

I leave you with a simple comparison of plants and animals, which borrows from the biblical model of “begats.”  A framework like this can serve as the starting point for a lecture, a class, or an entire botanical curriculum.

For plants:

  1.       In the beginning was photosynthesis.
  2.       Photosynthesis begat indeterminate growth.
  3.       Indeterminate growth begat immobility.
  4.       Immobility begat hydrostatic engines, spores, and passive defense.
  5.       Hydrostatic engines begat maple syrup, fresh salad, bamboo, and venus fly traps.
  6.     Spores begat alternation of generations, pine cones and orchids.
  7.       Passive defense begat curry, digitalis and marijuana, as well as cactus spines and walnut shells.

The resources required for photosynthesis are diffuse:
light and carbon dioxide from above, and water and
minerals from below.  How does that dictate virtually
every aspect of plant biology?
For animals:
  1.      In the beginning was the mouth.
  2.       The mouth begat food-sensing organs and locomotion.
  3.       Food-sensing organs and locomotion begat the head.
  4.       The head begat response, behavior, instinct, sex, thought, and blog postings.

Finer iterations of this model can lead us to understand the difference between Acacia trees and savanna grasses, both struggling to survive in an African savanna, or the difference between mussels and barnacles vying for a spot on an intertidal rock.

Your homework is to think about these chains of cause and effect.  How does photosynthesis lead to curry?  I’ll return with a fuller discussion in the near future.

Literature cited:

Bortolus, A.  2008.  Error Cascades in the Biological Sciences: The Unwanted Consequences of Using Bad Taxonomy in Ecology.  Ambio 37 (2): 114-118.