TIM ENTWISLE THE AUSTRALIAN MARCH 11, 2014 12:00AM*
I WAS at a conference last week where it was argued that we are living in a new geological period, the Age of Modern Man, the Anthropocene. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. As our impact on the planet grows, and climate change starts to bite, the Anthropocene may be one of the shortest geological periods on record. And it looks like we’ll take a lot of the planet’s plants and animals with us.
The title of my presentation was curing plant blindness and illiteracy. I spoke about the importance of plants to surviving and prolonging the Anthropocene, and what botanic gardens and botanists can do to help mankind in this time of trouble - from raising the standard of botanical literacy through to investing in seed banks and research.
Returning to my office in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, I was greeted with news of a more imminent mass extinction, that of the word botany in our universities. Soon there may be no school or department of botany in an Australian university, and few anywhere in the world.
This doesn’t mean plants won’t feature in the university curriculum and research. New departments of biological science are forming from an amalgam of botanical and zoological schools, sometimes gathering up agriculture and various environmental units. Botany, or plant science as we like to call it these days, will be part an integrated program of life science.
While it could be argued that these new arrangements simply reflect our better understanding of the world, where plants and animals and various other organisms all interact and interconnect, we run the risk of losing something fundamental and important. That’s the ability to discern and understand the organisms with which we share our planet.
Some of these new departments may do botany as well, or better, than those who used to have the moniker nailed to the front door. While I value history and the word botany has strong links to my undergraduate and postgraduate years, it isn’t for those reasons I question the loss of this botanical identity. As with school curricula, we keep adding to the university syllabus as new knowledge is created, without any deletion. Molecular biology is immensely important and influential but it has been shoe-horned into biological teaching taking much of the space previously allocated to understanding the plants (and animals) that carry the molecules. Embracing molecular methods is essential but not at the expense of basic botanical knowledge.
The mega biological departments being created today are generally split into the mode of study - molecular biology, environmental biology, evolutionary biology, ecology - which makes some sense, but I wonder if in the end we lose too much in the translation. I find cross-disciplinary conferences such as the one last week fascinating and informative, and I welcome any chance to break out of my organismal
In the case of the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne, the one I know best, I am hoping the writing remains on the bronze plaque and not on the wall. Its branding is incredibly strong. Internationally, the School of Botany has a reputation for excellence in research and teaching, and locally it has used its foundation to raise money for projects such as $1 million for a joint post-doctoral position with the Royal Botanic Gardens, whose own foundation raised matching funds. This is a baby worth pampering.
Plants and their botanical relatives are survivors. We sometimes forget that blue-green algae ruled the Earth for three billion years. It was a long time ago; before the internet and even before the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs themselves stomped around the planet for 160 million years or so before a giant meteorite hit Earth.
We humans have been here for less than half a million years, with close relatives going back two million years at most. A tiny blip in geological time. Indeed there is debate around whether we warrant a geological age for ourselves, whether our time on this planet will leave a sufficient mark in what is called the stratigraphy.
Botany has already earned its place in geological time. Close descendants of the aforementioned algae are still alive today, and the flowering plants bloomed for the first time about 140 million years ago. We would do well to understand how they have survived for so long, and to apply our modern science in the context of their diversity and biology. I’d like to think the discipline of botany might survive another century or two, or at least to the end of the Anthropocene.
Tim Entwisle is director of Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.