Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Brief for Description

An old one, from 2013, riding my favorite hobbyhorse (one of them, at any rate): description.
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Writing at Edge, Ursula Martin praises description:
Once upon a time such observation, description and illustration was the bread and butter of professional and amateur scientists. My eight volume flora, on heavy paper with lovely illustrations that are now collectors' items, was well-thumbed by the original owner, a nineteenth century lady of leisure. It claims to be written for the "unscientific", but the content differs from a modern flora only by the inclusion of quantities of folklore, anecdotes and literary references.

Darwin's books and letters are full of careful descriptions. The amateur struggling with a field guide may take comfort reading how he frets over the difference between a stem with two leaves and a leaf with two leaflets. Darwin seems to have had a soft spot for fumitories, giving wonderfully detailed descriptions of the different varieties, whether and under what conditions they attracted insects, and how the geometry and flexibility of the different parts of the flower affected how pollen was carried off by visiting bees. He was looking for mechanisms that ensured evolutionary variability by making it likely that bees would occasionally transfer pollen from one flower to another, giving rise to occasional crosses—analysis later reflected in the Origin of Species....

No amount of image analysis or data mining can yet take the place of the attention and precision practiced by Darwin and thousands of other professional and amateur naturalists and ecologists.

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