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Small wonders

Print edition : Feb 24, 2012 T+T-

A new vista to the world of insects for young students.

AT the Indian Science Congress, which was held in the first week of January, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, senior scientists, and heads of various national scientific institutions paid their annual ritual tribute to science and raised the question, What ails science? However, like in so many other fields in this country, much needs to be done to build, sustain and maintain a tradition of science, which, more than ever before, is now under attack by quacks, superstitions and irrational thinking.

Sadly, all these gain credence through television serials, which unabashedly promote witchcraft and other such practices. To counter such tendencies which are anti-knowledge, a critical area of work is to lay the foundations of knowledge, especially science education, at the school level. An important part of that foundation is the designing of the curriculum and the method of pedagogy.

Satpada is a book by two exceptional teachers of zoology. It shows how knowledge combined with creative pedagogy can result in learning that not only is fun but can make science and scientists. This book is as much a proof of their dedication to the subject they taught as it is a tribute to entomology, a discipline that is taught in our schools as part of natural science and in college as zoology. Only at the postgraduate level is entomology taught as a discipline the study of the world of insects, creatures that are said to account for more than two-thirds of all living organisms.

Insects are both harmful as pests and as carriers of disease and helpful as pollinators, decomposers, natural enemies of pests, and creatures of stunning beauty. Readers of Frontline have already been treated to a virtual feast of pictures and information on the world of insects by Geetha Iyer (one of the co-authors of the book under review), who wrote an eight-part series for the magazine in 2011.

Rebecca Thomas and Geetha Iyer are also good examples of how a teacher and her student (Geetha was Rebecca's student) who becomes a teacher can carry on a tradition of dedication to the dissemination of knowledge, here of the world of minutiae, which we contemptuously refer to as the world of insects.

It is important to write about those whose patient labours have gone into the production of this useful and interesting book on insects. Rebecca Thomas, now in retirement in Kerala, was the principal of Rishi Valley School, where she taught biology for over 30 years. She was specially asked to head the school by J. Krishnamurti and was headmistress for several years before she became principal. She built a formidable reputation as an excellent teacher and a principal with excellent leadership qualities. Before joining Rishi Valley, she had taught biology in Tanzania. Her husband took on the responsibilities of the bursar of Rishi Valley, also at the request of J. Krishnamurti.

Rebecca and Geetha Iyer took an ecological and evolutionary perspective in teaching biology and the book is a result of some of their field studies with biology students and nature club members. Geetha Iyer's commitment to the subject and to teaching natural science in schools is widely known among teachers, scholars and researchers. Her doctoral research focussed on a new biology curriculum for high school students. Though not involved in teaching now, she is very active in helping schools that ask for her assistance as a curriculum specialist. To produce a book like the one under review requires on the part of its authors many capabilities, not just knowledge of the insect world.

It requires the power of patient observation and the discernment needed to understand and classify insects, especially when a large part of the pictures and illustrations that are the forte of the book are by the authors themselves. To be an ecologist, one should have an understanding of scale and the relationship between scales. This world of minutiae may be seen as something of not great consequence but it is scales lower than the scale of insects that constitute the web of nature. Keen observation is a fundamental requirement for any naturalist, and the insect world can teach us not only the importance of this competence but, more importantly, how observation of nature at that scale provides us with a sense of perspective and the ability to see, sense and know the changes that take place in nature.

Charles Darwin, in his Autobiography of Charles Darwin, sums up the quality that needs to be at the heart of the naturalist when he writes:

Some of my critics have said, Oh he is a good observer but he has no power of reasoning'. I do not think that this can be true for the Origin of Species is one long argument from the beginning to the end, and it has convinced not a few able men. No one could have written it without some power of reasoning. I have a fair share of invention, and of common sense or judgment, such as every fairly successful lawyer or doctor must have, but not, I believe in any higher degree.

On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape their attention, and in observing them carefully [emphasis added]. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.

Writing about the great naturalist and scientist Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish historian of science Sten Lindroth says:

He was a brilliant observer; nothing escaped him. Linnaeus experienced the diversity of species and forms in the empirical world around him with exceptional intensity: the beetles on the road, the herbs in the meadow, the shells in the chalk hills. He was, Linnaeus rightly said of himself, one of the keenest observers we ever had'. It is with good reason that there has been talk of Linnaeus's eye, of Linnaeus as a visual genius.

Along with Aristotle, his forerunner and teacher in natural history, Linnaeus saw in the cognitive process an outflow of pictures from things; nothing existed in the intellect that had not previously existed in his senses.

It is interesting that Linnaeus' first public address, his presidential address to the Swedish Academy of Sciences, was On wonderful things among insects. So important is the role the world of insects has played in the lives of some of the greatest natural scientists.

Satpada, produced by two remarkable and sensitive teachers, has the possibility of opening up a whole new vista to nature for young students something that we need to do urgently to create a sensitivity towards natural science and natural history and not just the fascination for the tiger.

The authors, in the Preface, write about the excitement with which children in Standard XII discuss the hornet's nest and how in trying to protect it they take on a keen interest in the world of insects.

The authors say, As adults witnessing the enthusiasm of children and their lookouts, discoveries, queries, collections, sensitive responses and wondrous sighs, we were prompted to bring out a book on insects. They then go on to make an apt and beautiful observation, that those who make so much noise about ecology and environment, those who are obsessed with the inevitable politics of it, could do well to keep it etched in their own minds so that it will also provide some balance and scale in talking about ecology and the environment. They admit that the enthusiasm of their students inspired them to produce the book.

This is not the work of trained entomologists, but of two biology teachers who, along with their students were attracted to the insect diversity that existed in the campus of Rishi Valley. Insects became the subject of study in many different ways, and soon they were instrumental in heightening the awareness in children and adults alike, of the need to conserve the environment. Often it is the fear and not their beauty that seem to bring insects into our sphere of attention. The loss of our well-being is so etched in our consciousness as is the thought that insects can only harm that, more often than not, the uniqueness of their appearance or lifestyle seems lost on humans, the authors write.

Talk on conservation of biodiversity, and the value of biodiversity often oscillates between a very instrumental and functional, an almost crude use-function, perspective and perspectives that acknowledge the intrinsic value of biodiversity. At times, highlighting the use-functions and the functional perspective of the contribution of biodiversity can serve the short-term ends of conservation of species diversity and that of living creatures such as insects at the lower scale.

From a scientific and knowledge perspective, it is, of course, important to go beyond the immediate functional perspectives of conserving species biodiversity. A mindset that recognises the intrinsic value in species such as insects can produce an understanding of nature, which, ironically, can provide us with far-reaching functional perspectives and uses from such an understanding of nature. The science of bio-mimicry has shown us what we can learn from nature to address problems that human beings cannot address.

Similarly, a fine sensitivity to and understanding of the insect world can give us not only insights into how to deal with problems that humans face but useful products that allow us to extend our abilities beyond what humans are capable of. The frontiers of science that are being opened up in the latter perspective also tell us why such books assist the future of science and in creating a new generation of young scientists in fields such as entomology.

Entomologists are no longer mere assassins of the insect world. They are part of a new generation of scientists who, through their understanding and knowledge of such small creatures, can create new sciences that help humans extend their cognitive abilities in areas beyond their imagination.