Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Young Life Scientific

I've often heard (most recently by Franz de Waal on The Life Scientific), that the early life of scientists should be one spent mostly in nature. David Attenborough extols the virtues of rural Leicestershire. E. O. Wilson has talked about his passion for hunting snakes and ants in Alabama. I also spent a lot of time as a kid unobserved, exploring the State Forest adjacent to my backyard.

I'm concerned, though, about putting too fine a point on the rural aspect of a childhood filled with wonder for the natural world. Societies are becoming ever more increasingly urban, and it makes a lot of sense in terms of how we access material goods and services. Having lots of budding little scientists in the woods seems like a luxury that we can't realistically afford, given how much more resources (just the petrol alone) it takes to maintain people in rural communities. There's often (but not always) an aspect of privilege to rural life as well, and we don't want science to be constrained to kids lucky enough to have parents who can afford to live in "the country".

So I worry about this particular story line, the endless hours spent unattended in nature, about the formation of a young scientist's mind. Even as I recognize how important it was to me, I think there are probably broader opportunities of living in more densely populated areas that benefit young scientists as much if not more (like accessible museums* and educational programs). And we shouldn't discount the green spaces in urban environments that can spark kids' interests in the natural world. After all, E. O. Wilson grew up around Mobile and D.C., and Attenborough in Leicester proper, right next to the sprawling Victoria Park. Stephen Jay Gould grew up in New York City and was awed by the T. Rex skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History*. I think there's hope for little urban dwellers yet.


**I was partial to the habitat dioramas*** myself


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