Citizen science is about regular people contributing to scientific discovery.  Today’s burgeoning citizen science movement is aided and abetted by smartphone apps that precisely geolocate species observations; when these observations accrue into big numbers, statistical analysis and computing power can be deployed to discern otherwise invisible patterns.  This “big data” citizen science is at the forefront of scientific methodologies today, but the roots of citizen science, and its basic purpose, hail back to Enlightenment impulses to understand God’s creation.

The sticking of some people to the creation story of Genesis to explain how life started here on earth is frequently bemoaned as a big impediment to dealing more realistically with how life forms come and go. If life comes from a magic place and time then we have no real responsibility toward it—and that is, indeed, a problem. But those of us who fully sign on to evolution should not just throw away the story of Genesis. In fact, the Christian explanation for creation provides the template for all subsequent Western inquiries into time, place, and purpose. The Garden of Eden and Noah’s ark have starring roles in the story of life as understood by early European naturalists, many of whom tied their scientific inquiries directly into their expressions of faith—which included the belief that the spirit of God is embedded in the physical world. The Garden has a special resonance for California, since people thought they would literally find it here, and in a way they did.

161519243You know the story. Adam and Eve transgressed God’s wishes and were subsequently thrown out of the paradise called Eden, not only losing the ultimate real estate but also now subject to mortality. Adam and Eve started out in a timeless place, a heaven-on-earth. They ended up vulnerable to pain and death and they received an expiration date. The idea of Eden eventually translated into something symbolic, but over quite a long period of time people took it literally and were on the hunt for the paradise of Adam and Eve. Where did it go? Eden had vanished but scripture implied it was just around a critical corner somewhere. John Prest, in The Garden of Eden: The Botanic Garden and the Re-Creation of Paradise, writes, “Throughout the Middle Ages the Garden was believed, somehow, to have survived the Flood, and in the great age of geographical discoveries in the fifteenth century, navigators and explorers had hopes of finding it.”6 They were unsuccessful, of course, and expanded their thinking on the subject. Maybe Eden was lurking somewhere hidden on the earth, or maybe the original creation had been scattered by the Flood. Expeditions thus began to be sent out to bring pieces of the original creation back home, where they would be reconstituted in “in a Botanic Garden, or new Garden of Eden.”

For more than two thousand years the first formal European gardens were square, divided into quadrants representing the four corners of the earth. With the discovery of the New World, the four corners came to stand in for Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, as these continents became known. The great seventeenth-century gardens additionally parsed the quadrants into separate beds, each the home of a particular family of plants, and each plant had its own fastidiously determined place, which Prest likens to assigned seats at a family dinner table. If this expressed an idea of God’s progeny, the gardens also reflected a belief that God’s mind could be studied and known through the plant life. Laid out in figurative pages set for reference the garden was thus an encyclopedia. Better than a book because the plants were real. These assembled reference guides revealed the many faces of Creator, and each family of plants represented a specific act of creation.

In the encyclopedic approach can be discerned the beginnings of modern science—the information collection, the careful ordering of relationships. Basically, the botanic garden was a living database. Faith and facts continued to be deeply enmeshed through the 1700s, when Carl Linnaeus developed a way to wrestle with new species brought back to Europe by the thousands in the age of exploration. In establishing the binomial system of naming—thus Homo sapiens or Deppea splendens—Linnaeus organized creation into a kind of spreadsheet, laying the ground for taxonomy and the study of evolutionary relationships, though of course he did not see his work that way. Linnaeus put the names of species in a big hierarchy, once again framing the natural world in a supernatural context of perfection as conceived by God, and headed up by God.

This all may seem very long ago and far away, but some basic formatting laid down by the botanical garden idea and by Linnaeus is still in use today, though it has been revised. Citizen scientists are frequently asked to do what research scientists do all the time in the field, which is count things up and/or measure things within the confines of a transect. Counting up hawks as they whiz by on their annual migration over the Golden Gate Bridge, my fellow citizen scientists and I take stations at the four cardinal directions and rotate once an hour. The tide pool count of nudibranchs and sea stars similarly takes place in a transect outlined as a representative microcosm of the whole reef. The transect is always a representative part of a whole, just like the original botanical gardens were microcosms of Eden.

The story of Noah’s ark continues the story of the Garden of Eden—where do you think that olive branch brought by the dove came from? Linnaeus opined that the ark had landed on Mount Ararat in Turkey and the pairs of species on it had headed out from there to the places where they were found in his day.7 The two-by-two counting of species represents the basic scientific concept of the reproductive pair.8 Linnaeus kept closely to idea that God’s perfect mind was expressed on earth. This is actually similar to indigenous belief in a creator evident in all nature. But as the biblical Garden of Eden was a deathless place of eternal spring, Linnaeus’s emphasis on “perfect” meant permanent. He felt that plants and animals were exactly suited to their environments now and forever. The problems that arose out of this idea are among the very first questions that developed into the concept we call biogeography.

Much citizen science is exploring biogeography at ever more specific scales. The basic question is: What are the conditions of life in a particular place that make it habitable by the species living there? The problem facing Linnaeus—how did creatures get to places past landscapes that would have killed them?—is faced today by many species on the move as the climate conditions they are habituated to are changing due to human impacts. One of the biggest negative consequences wrought by global warming is that it is changing seasonal timing. Spring comes earlier and winter has been virtually eliminated in parts of the world. Linnaeus thought God transcended the temporal dimension and so provided a constant wellspring by which nature lived. It turns out that time and seasons are in large part running the show.

Linnaeus is a herald of the Enlightenment, the transition in intellectual history in which thinkers and social activists sought to discern fact from fiction, to emerge from a mindset guided by inherited beliefs to a reasoned picture of things based on quantifiable observation. Aficionados of Star Trek may recall the 1988 episode “Datalore,” which is a parable of sorts for this ongoing struggle. Data is the true-blue, real-deal twin whose evil sibling is Lore. Lore impersonates Data for bad purposes but doesn’t get things quite right. Data wins in the end, and blasts Lore into another universe. This is what the Enlightenment and subsequent scientific endeavor has attempted to do—get Lore, or storytelling, out of the picture. Although Linnaeus was a devout believer in Genesis and Creation with a capital C, he provided a template for tracking relationships that were explainable by natural history rather than by divine fiat. Darwin’s great insight that species rise from one another revises this into a genealogy, transforming a hierarchy of relationships with God at the top into a family tree. Darwin’s thought was made possible by Linnaeus, even though Darwin basically did to Linnaeus what Data did to Lore.

Darwin’s idea about evolution by way of natural selection was supported by reams of observations, but essentially it remained just that – an idea – until contemporary methods of analysis and quantification came along to nail down the particulars.  Darwin wondered about the varied beaks of the “mockingthrushes” on the Galapagos; it was not until the 1940s that British ornithologist David Lack precisely documented adaptive radiation discerned in the famous “Darwin’s finches” he examined mostly in museum collections.  Today’s citizen science projects enjoin users to make photographic observations of species, and apps like iNaturalist associate the photos with a date, a time, a latitude and a longitude.  Thus who, what, where, and when — original questions asked by the devout about creation– are today precisely located by citizen science. The main utility of this kind of citizen science is not so much in asking how creation came to be, but in tracking what is happening to it as global change unfolds.

Published On: September 6, 2016

Mary Ellen Hannibal

Mary Ellen Hannibal

Mary Ellen Hannibal is a writer focusing on science and culture. She is a recipient of the National Society of Science Writer’s Science and Society Award 2012 and Stanford University’s Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism. She is the founder and producer of Evolve2009, a San Francisco city-wide celebration of Darwin and evolution. Evolve2009 won the California Library Association’s 2009 award for advocacy and communications.

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