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Why is it important to study the natural world scientifically?

Comic illustration by Thejaswini Saravanan

Most of us witness the natural world through a flat television screen in High-Definition. Imagine the visuals of a bustling Indian town with Indian fusion music in the background and Sir David Attenborough's Voice for narration. The House Crow is an incredibly fascinating bird. The bird lives in close proximity to humans. Some Indian cultures believe that their ancestors appear in the form of crows. And so, before the family has lunch, the lady of the house places a bowl of rice with a dollop of clarified butter on the terrace and calls, Ka Ka Ka (lady calling).

The house crow not wanting to disappoint the host appears immediately. In case the lady forgets her daily afternoon ritual, the crow turns up on time for lunch and makes sure to remind her by calling, Ka Ka Ka (crow calling).

This narration is filled with entertaining story telling. But how does one understand this observation of an unusual affinity between a bird and a human. For starters, is the same crow visiting the human everyday? Does the bird actually learn the time it receives food and appears on the dot? Does the crow learn to call and attract the attention of the human? So many questions coming from one simple observation. To answer these questions one needs to observe an individual bird across days. But is that sufficient enough. Do all crows in the area perform similar behaviors?

This human endeavor of making an observation (interaction between crows and human), following which you ask a question (is this the same crow), collect data (banding the crow on its leg to identify individuals and meticulously recording if it appears every day for food) and then analyzing and carefully inferring the data collected, is how Science works. It is a rigorous attempt at getting close to the truth. Nobody states it better than the nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz,

“The truth about an animal is far more exciting and altogether more beautiful than all the myths woven about it.”

Besides the 'exciting' and 'beautiful' truth, there are other reasons to study the natural world. One reason being our interconnected nature with the natural world. Take the example of toast and eggs that are a typical breakfast menu all across the world. The toast of course comes from wheat. Wheat grows best in areas that are cool, moist for most part of the year, and warm, dry for the rest.

But what if climate change plays havoc in the near future and the wheat production reduces. What would this loss mean to us? Not everybody in the society might be able to afford bread for breakfast. As dystopian this might sound there is truth in this line of inquiry. But a possible solution comes from an agricultural scientist who is probably on look out for a wild wheat variety that can withstand climatic stress and probably ensure you continue to have bread for breakfast irrespective of the changing climate. But where does the wild wheat variety come from? This requires detailed recording of what is out there in the wildlife reserves, understanding them and conserving them for posterity. This preservation of course is not limited to wheat alone, but every plant and animal product we depend on. Not to forget the services of bees that pollinate flowering plants to the birds and mammals that disperse seeds and farm forests. We owe them all our survival and probably an unpayable debt. Next time there is a road, pipeline or a dam construction cutting across a protected area, think of the rich unknown biological treasures that will be depleted from the face of the earth.

And finally, the natural world provides insight on what makes us distinct or similar to our fellow creatures. A primitive description of humans in the 1800s was "tool-using animal". This description became inadequate when primatologist Jane Goodall observed the chimpanzee using a thin blade of grass to fish ants, prompting her mentor Louis Leakey to say,

“Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

And from there on, tool use has been recorded in crows, gulls, elephants, dolphins, sea otters and many others for various purposes. Recently, tree crickets cutting holes in leaves and creating a baffle to call louder and attract mates is also considered tool use. So how different or similar are other living creatures to us? To paraphrase Charles Darwin, the differences might only be in degree. Exploring the natural world with a scientist’s eye is probably a way to see and learn about our own selves.

So, on this occasion of National Science Day let us step beyond viewing the natural world for mere entertainment. Not all of us need to become scientists to contribute to science. Every observation of a bird, butterfly or a moth you make from your balcony can contribute to citizen science projects and make a difference. The timing of when the tree near your house has flowers and fruits is invaluable to scientists too. And most importantly seek these experts for any questions or queries you might have about the natural world. The scientists might not have all the answers, but they do love to talk about their work over a cup of coffee or chai.


Article written by: Harish Prakash

All Image copyright: Creative Commons licenses

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