The Grandeur in this View of Life

IBS Meeting, part 2: A Big Question

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One of the exciting things about scientific conferences like the International Biogeography Society meeting is that you get exposed to some Big Questions. On my first day at the meeting, I heard a new one.

What are the gifts you can give your readers?

hummingbirdI almost missed the question. It slipped into the workshop like a hummingbird, zipping in between our discussions of How to Expand Your Ideas and Choosing and Using Models of Scientific Writing. The conversation was lively enough that we didn’t stop to answer the question directly, but it hovered in my mind for the rest of the afternoon, buzzing and iridescent.

The question came from Dr. Sarah Perrault, the leader of our workshop on Writing Popular Science. She guided us through an afternoon that mixed active writing with more reflective discussions of the components of various genres, the need to engage their readers in relationships of trust and credibility, and the balance of facts, values, and actions in our narrative ambitions. But in some ways what it all came down to for me was that single passing question.

I thought about Sarah’s question some more on the way back to my hotel. The walk is a little long (North Miami is built for cars, not pedestrians) but on the way to Biscayne Boulevard,  the route cuts through the East Arch Creek Environmental Preserve, a small tangle of woodland and brackish estuaries squeezed in between the Florida International University Biscayne Bay campus and the high rise condominiums that line the bay itself. Walking among the canopies of Australian pine and Brazilian pepper, it struck me that much like the human component of the city, the plants of the preserve are a community of immigrants. These species have tagged along with us humans, transported here from the far sides of the planet. In particular, we planted Australian pine to stabilize beaches and estruary banks, because it is very salt tolerant and forms dense thickets. Unfortunately, like many of our fellow travelers, it has become invasive, displacing large numbers of native species, the collateral damage of our own species’ success.

The Australian pine, Casuarina equisetifolia, is actually not a pine at all. It is not even a conifer. What appear to be evergreen needles are actually small green twigs bearing rings of tiny leaves that fall off during dry periods. Even its fruits look superficially like pinecones, but on closer inspection they actually reflect its closer relationship with flowering plant species in the birch family like ironwood, alder, and hornbeam. Until we humans began transporting it around the world, the Casuarina family was found only in Southeast Asia, India, and Australia, a distribution that reflects its origin on the ancient southern continent of Gondwanaland, sometime around 40-55 million years ago, based on the earliest fossils of those distinctive needle-like twigs and cone-like fruits.

This global re-shuffling of plants (and animals too) signals the emergence of humanity as a geological force, reshaping Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, and climate in unprecedented and clearly documented ways. Our network of shipping lanes, air traffic, railways, and roads, many of which converge here in Miami, has fostered what biogeographers call a “biotic interchange.” Earlier interchanges include the joining of the Americas by the isthmus of Panama about 3 million years ago. Among many other changes, this event, known as the Great American Interchange, brought hummingbirds into North America for the first time. But our current Global Human Interchange dwarfs all previous events, both in its speed and its extent. Its effects are all around us but often unnoticed, from the zebra mussels choking out the native invertebrates of the Great Lakes to the Casuarina woodlands of the East Arch Creek Environmental Preserve.

Ecology, evolution, and biogeography are sciences of connection, illuminating networks of interactions between species and their environments and tracing those interactions through lineages of descent deep into Earth’s history. This view of life transforms and brightens reality. The tree passed on the trail is no longer just a tree, it’s part of a larger story, a story that ties the present streets of North Miami to the ancient shores of Gondwanaland.

Scientists learn to read these stories through careful observation, measurement, reasoning, and analysis, and they are edited, revised, critiqued, and rewritten collectively via the scientific literature and at conferences like the IBS meeting.

These stories, sometimes complicated, often beautiful, never ending, are the gifts I hope to share with you.

My instructor, Sarah Perrault, is an Assistant Professor in the University Writing Program and an affiliated faculty member with the John Muir Institute of the Environment at UC Davis. Her book on writing about science for general audiences, Communicating Popular Science, is under contract with Palgrave Macmillan. Having taken this workshop with her, I look forward to reading it.

In the writing workshop we also discussed the fact that many press articles about science are actually ghostwritten by writers working in university public affairs offices, because journalists simply attach their bylines to institutional press releases with minimal editing. So, in the spirit of Jonah Lehrer, I just “borrowed” most of Sarah’s blurb above from the conference website (except for the last sentence). Thanks again, Sarah!


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