Saturday, August 15, 2009

The passive approach to nature education

(My wife must have been listening all those years, even though she always appeared as bored as these students.)

My wife and I have almost nothing in common, even though we will celebrate our 41st wedding anniversary in a couple of weeks. I mean, we share few hobbies and interests and it has always been that way. I like to poke around in our forest to find bird nests, she likes to watch HGTV. I like to identify wildflowers, she would rather sip a glass of wine and read a Daniel Silva novel. I like to garden, she likes to tell me where the garden should be. She also complains that the garden does not seem "lush" enough, as she points out of the living room window with one hand while turning the page on her book with the other. (Try this sometime. It isn't as easy as it sounds). I plant, water, and weed the tomatoes, she picks the fruit. I tend to sow, she tends to reap, at least when it comes to activities outside of the house.

Nonetheless, I have talked to her about the natural history of all sorts of organisms, and she has endured hearing about my studies of white-tailed deer, ground squirrels, bobolinks, and Costa Rican birds. She has received the gospel according to DrTom with respect to human reproductive behavior, evolution of species, avian habitat selection, multiple paternity, natural selection and a multitude of other biological topics that were potentially boring enough to make a college freshman switch from biology to late-18th century Italian art. But she always nodded dutifully, said "that is interesting", and bemusedly resumed reading the exploits of Gabriel Allon. I was sure she neither heard a word I said nor grasped the finer points that so engrossed me.

But I guess I was wrong. A few months ago it began. She was sitting in the living room quietly, and as she put down her wine glass, she nonchalantly announced that an indigo bunting had just flown by the window. Then she asked me, "why don't we have European starlings around our house, you know, Sturnus vulgaris". I hadn't mentioned the scientific name of that bird since we attended a lecture together at Ohio State in 1967. What the hell! Then, a few days later, "I suppose with the huge human population on earth, that highly virulent viruses will not be selected against as they were in the past, given the ease of transmission from human to human now." Holy crap! And finally, yesterday she came up with this one while watching Entertainment Tonight on tv: "I understand the tendency of human males to strive for high status to attract females to increase their reproductive success, but wouldn't females be better off if they selected males with slightly less status to lessen the competition for that male with other females?" Judas Priest!! Is the sky falling?

What was that information doing all these decades in that blond-headed body of hers? Had she just been holding out on me, or were those data locked away in some impenetrable place only to be released now by some chemical interaction? Is this some form of dementia, where you can't remember what you had for breakfast that morning but you can remember the latin name of a bird you learned four decades ago? Should I be worried or pleased, rather than just perplexed? Or, is this a hint of what is to come? For example, will the students I had in my last course a year ago wake up some morning in 2040 with an explosion of biological understanding that they never had until then? This is pretty scary stuff, so you can see why I took two ibuprofen last night and went to bed at 8:30 (at that point, Robin muttered something about humans going to sleep at night might have evolved to reduce the chances of their being found by predators). Stop!!!

I awoke this morning and realized that females really can multitask. My wife could read a book and listen to my ravings, and assimilate both. But the really important conclusion is that she really was absorbing a good part of what I had been saying all those years, even though it appeared that she could not have cared less. Maybe this is the way it will work with the public in general as well. Maybe there will be a great awakening, and everyone will be chattering knowledgeably about climate change, and loss of biodiversity, and human population growth, instead of whether Michael Vic should be rehired by the Eagles. Perhaps the public had been listening all the time, but something kept them from admitting that they cared. What is the key to unlocking that flood gate resulting in a collective attack on serious problems? Somebody please tell me.