"Walden", evolution and climate change

Elizabeth Pennisi, reporting from the Evolution meetings, has turned in an article about how biologists are using the 19th century plant records of Henry David Thoreau to study how flowering times have changed in 150 years:

Many studies have looked at how global warming may cause shifts in where plants grow, but very few have examined how specific traits, such as flowering time, are affected. The necessary long-term records rarely exist. But for 6 years, Thoreau tracked the life histories of more than 400 plant species in a 67-square-kilometer area. Another researcher covered the same ground at Walden Pond and its surrounds circa 1900. Then from 2004 to 2007, Boston University (BU) conservation biologist Richard Primack and his student Abraham Miller-Rushing regularly visited the area to make similar observations of about 350 species and to check how the abundances of these plants had changed through time.
Their data, published in February in Ecology, revealed that many flowers were blossoming a week earlier than in Thoreau's time. They noted also that about half of the species studied had decreased in number, with 20% having disappeared entirely.

The emphasis of the article is climate change.

I want to point out something else: scientific writing of the 1800’s (and I would add the 1700’s to this) is still broadly relevant today. Thoreau is often taught in high school, in a relatively uninteresting manner. I think we should work to integrate the literature and science portions of the curriculum. Sure, there’s a place for Oscar Wilde, but time spent on Dickens, or even Shakespeare, might profitably be given to Darwin. Think of Darwin’s work as a letter-writer, for instance: a selection of letters and some passages from Voyage of the Beagle may not surpass Jane Austen, but they may give a fuller perspective of the history and life of the period, outside the confines of parlor society. Emerson and Thoreau are standards in American literature surveys, but why not change the emphasis to the mid-to-late-19th-century awareness of the environment, dump Emerson, put in some of Thoreau’s lesser-known work, and add in John Muir?

Kids are not going to read too much, so change the reading list to things that will integrate different fields of study. That certainly would add more to the comprehension of literature, and would appeal to many kids who will never be reached by Henry James or Charlotte Bronté.

UPDATE (2008/07/06): A reader writes:

I am neither an English major nor an artist, but I can hear thousands of both grinding their teeth should they read the above. Most canonical American literature was a reaction to the onslaught of mechanization. To cull the reading list to only those parts relevant to today's science would amount to a sort of gag rule. It would replace a merely cultural hegemony with a technical one. Your examples of whom to shun (James, Bronte) are not even American in their subjects. Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Whitman need to be taught for the ways they subvert the American technical-capitalist program, not for their celebration of it. Sure, teach Darwin and Thoreau (and Humboldt and Agassiz and Marsh and Leopold etc.) as literate natural history. In the science class. English teaching needs its own reform but the answer is not to shrink it to technics.
Scientists mostly thought E. O. Wilson's *Consilience* was a fair-minded overture to expanded liberal thought. Most humanities types thought it self-serving, adaptive, and illiberal. By this I mean, I think, that some things can be so piously liberal that they come out sounding illiberal.

I think the writer is only partly right about the subversion of the technical-capitalist program. I would observe that high school literature selections are mainly devoted to two themes: (a) reinforce the resistance to racism/bigotry, and (b) illustrate the dangers of peer pressure/conformism/classism. Hence, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter/The Crucible, 1984/Animal Farm, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Brave New World, The Outsiders, Lord of the Flies.

I wouldn’t change this part. Ultimately, these are good messages to instill in young citizens. Still, one wonders whether it really takes quite so many such examples to get the message across.

My question is whether English class should be devoid of nonfiction. There are few writers on the regular list whose works are not either fiction or poetry. Thoreau is one, and we can add Jonathan Edwards and the occasional addition of Ben Franklin’s Autobiography or Frederick Douglass’ Narrative. If the purpose of English requirement is to produce literate citizens, then I would argue that more quality nonfictional works should be included – a change that I would consider an expansion rather than a shrinkage. I also think that would increase the inclusiveness of the reading list, which presently is a poor match for the interests of a large segment of students.

I agree with the writer entirely that the teaching of quality writing should extend to science (and I would add, history) classes. This will require a much more fundamental change in the curriculum, since the real hegemony is the textbook publishers. But I would like to add more integration across the curriculum in different subjects. Why can’t schools collaborate across disciplines, for example a unit integrating nature observations, reading Aldo Leopold, and reviewing the history of conservation in the U.S.? Would that be worse than Steinbeck? Why not a history of the space program, some Arthur C. Clarke, and orbital motion? And considering the content of the existing English curriculum, why couldn’t a biology class integrate by coordinating a unit on race with the history the abolition movement and Frederick Douglass’ Narrative?

Yes, I know: it’s not on the standardized tests. And my homeschooling readers are probably already doing it (I know of at least one who is).

But it seems to me that scientists should do something to further this kind of integrative learning – and I am, after all, an anthropologist, so I attach great value to the integrative approach.