Natural History and the Pursuit of Love of Place

As an artist by profession and a naturalist by inclination, I have created a science class that seeks to understand art as a natural human phenomenon that is accessible to everyone. I then take art—this basic human activity—and use it as a lens to see and examine the wildlife of my home. In my Central Florida Natural History class at my school, I have worked to foster a love of home in my students. I am not specifically interested in fostering a love of abstracts such as nature or creation, as wonderful as those things are. I want students to love their actual home, and the things they tend to overlook every day. Love always moves outward from the specific to the general.

My plan is rather simple: students learn many of the plants and animals in Central Florida by name. The students go out and collect many examples of plants and animals, then they make many drawings of their ndings in hand-bound books. Making drawings and books is important because artwork is just that—work. It is a tangible, physical product that students can see and hold in their hands. There is much satisfaction to be had in this and it breeds affection for its object. In my class, it is also a record of having looked at an object closely. Art requires close observation and this is a skill that is often neglected in much of science education. Students leave my class seeing and recognizing the hundreds of little things that have always been there but have remained largely invisible.

This workshop will discuss ideas for helping teachers foster a love of place in their students. I will show how I have developed my own class in my particular locale and will discuss strategies for building Natural History classes in other regions. We will also discuss practical issues such as bookmaking, drawing, and procuring Natural History collections.

Matthew Clark

Matthew lives and works in central Florida at The Geneva School, where he has taught for the last six years. Previous to this, he taught at Veritas Academy in Lancaster, PA, for eight years. He has a BFA in drawing and painting from the University of Central Florida and an MFA in printmaking from the University of Florida. He and his wife, Amy, have seven children and an unreasonable number of poultry. They are members of St. Alban’s Anglical Cathedral.

What Hath Dante to do with Biology

The short answer is, within the modern conception of biology, nothing. No piece of literature fits within the modern framework of biology. Even history does not really fit. Of course Darwin is talked about in the chapter on evolution, and Mendel is mentioned in the introduction to genetics. Perhaps Harvey is mentioned in the chapter on the circulatory system, but not much else. But this is hardly meaningful. Why is this? For two reasons: first, it is because the modern biology textbook, along with any other science textbook, is what we understand about that subject at this point in time. The twists and turns of the past are not necessary when compared with the volume of science information to know right now. Secondly, science is seen as an independent subject. Philosophical foundations do not need to be considered, and theology has no influence on it at all. Modern science at best is merely about living well in the here and now or looking to the future. How can this system fit into classical education? In short, it can- not. However, there is a way to restructure biology so that it can fit within a classical model which makes Dante both relevant and necessary to the curriculum. Biology can be taught in a way that is faithful to the integrity of the disci- pline of biology as well as following an historical progres- sion that allows philosophy, history, and literature to be integrated into the curriculum and thus be conducive to our classical model. The older categories of natural history and natural philosophy have a way of being recovered.1 It is all in the sequencing of the material.


Basically the content of modern biology is done backwards and needs to be turned around. The first quarter should start with the human body and not microbiology. The systems of the body are learned along with the pro- cesses, e.g. circulation, necessary for sustaining human life. In my class we focus on the integration of parts and pro- cesses as opposed to going into depth for particular parts.

It is sufficient for my students to know the 11 systems, the parts within those systems, their purpose, and how they interconnect with each other. The final test of the quarter is a one-question essay, “You eat a ham and cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and mustard sandwich. How does this affect every system in your body? Discuss every system, its parts, purposes, and their integration. Also discuss the six main nutrients found within the sandwich and their importance for the body.”

In the second quarter the animal kingdom is discussed starting with the vertebrates and then the in- vertebrates. Major taxonomic groups are discussed, e.g. amphibians, along with how each group handles the same life processes students learned regarding their own bodies. All animals need to perform the same type of processes, but they do them in different ways. The way to test this is to give students pictures of representative creatures along with a life process. Students need to give the taxonomy
of the creature along with how it handles that specific life process. The final topic discussed is plants including tax- onomy, parts, and reproduction.

What is the historical significance of this progres- sion of material in biology? Prior to the invention of the microscope these were the only biological topics that were understood. Historically this is knowledge from the ancient civilizations in the Near East, Greece, Rome, and also that from the Middle Ages. It is during the first semester when students discuss that even though people, animals, and plants have been seen during these time periods, they have not all been seen in the same way. The Greeks valued philo- sophical wisdom and the soul more than the understand- ing of natural processes. The Romans preferred practical gadgets like aqueducts and plumbing to the philosophical ideas of the Greeks. People in the Middle Ages saw nature as emblematic of spiritual realities, much like Scripture talk- ing about creation praising God or trees and rivers clapping their hands.2 All throughout was the idea of essentialism or forms, those unchangeable essences found throughout Creation. Another idea from ancient Greece was the great chain of being that sequenced Creation into a straight line and served as a kind of taxonomic structure. These ideas are like threads throughout the curriculum. The class is a biology class and not a history of science class, but these ideas can be interwoven throughout when the material is sequenced in this way.

This leads to the third quarter, which starts with cells and the microscopic life of protists, bacteria, viruses, and fungus (yes, fungus is mostly multicellular, but this is the best way to sequence it). Following the completion of the diversity of life we discuss how the theory of evolution arose in order to account for such diversity. Evolution is discussed in terms of what Darwin understood in order to see why the theory of evolution quickly became the under- lying theory for all of biology. The history of the worldview of the Middle Ages and its change through the scientific revolution up until the late 19th century is also discussed- -and this is where Dante comes in–the details of which will be enumerated below. The last part of the third quarter is when students study ecology in the Everglades. It is impor- tant to take advantage of the natural resources in your area. The Everglades is a unique ecosystem, and the bugs are not that bad at the end of the third quarter, so that is the best time to go.

The fourth quarter is when biology will focus on all of those things nobody in the 19th century understood, the processes within cells and genetics. These processes in- clude photosynthesis, cell respiration, mitosis and meiosis. For the historical timeline it is back to the 19th century to start with Gregor Mendel and go through genetics to DNA and the process of making proteins. This completes the material of biology and now allows the class to re-evaluate the theory of evolution while examining the evolutionary history of life. It is now possible to see how the various positions on evolution and the Bible that are currently taken have roots that go back hundreds of years.

As seen with the first semester, there is an histori- cal progression to this sequencing of the material of biology that allows for not only maintaining the integrity of biology as a subject but also providing space for the integration of other disciplines such as history, literature, and philosophy. There are several other benefits as well. There is a progres- sion of material from concrete to abstract. The ninth grad- ers in biology class are really just older middle-schoolers. Their world does not extend much beyond their noses, so the easiest way to hook them into the material of biology is to get them to understand how their own body works. Their minds at the beginning of the year are less able to handle the abstract nature of cell processes. These are learned in the fourth quarter when it can be tied to concrete material they have already learned. This resequencing also allows us to recapture not only the older categories of the natural science tradition but also the natural history tradi- tion. The topics of biology are treated within their com- monly understood boundaries, similar to how they have always been done within the natural history tradition. The natural science tradition, or the exploration of causes, e.g. evolution, is considered after the exploration of the categories it is attempting to explain and is not assumed from the outset.

Another benefit of this progression includes re- ducing the heat and the pressure of the origins discussion. This happens because this modern discussion is seen in the larger context of a conversation that extends back to ancient Greece when natural philosophers were asking: “What came first, mind or matter?” If the conversation has been going on for so long and a complete resolution has not yet been reached, and if you do not have all of the answers by the end of ninth grade (or ever), it is okay. Each position of science and faith can be discussed in its strongest form allowing for an understanding of how history, philosophy, and science have been influencing each other over the centuries and thus making these issues increasingly com- plicated. Pressure is also reduced through this progression because evolution, which is often the underlying assump- tion of the text, is not made the automatic assumption of the class. Think about the progression of the modern science textbook: chemistry, cells, cell processes, microbiology, and then macrobiology; there is an underlying evolution assumption built in. If you reverse this sequence, then
that underlying assumption goes away, and the theory of evolution can be discussed as a proposed explanation for the phenomena observed instead of assuming the cause of evolution as true, complete, and unproblematic and then fitting the phenomena to it.

So how does Dante fit in? Dante provides a glimpse into the medieval worldview. Recall that Inferno begins with Dante being alone in a dark wood, separated from the love of God (represented by the sun) and sur- rounded by three beasts, which represent sin. There are multiple clues within the text about why this is a comedy or that Dante will come to a good end: it is the year 1300; it is dawn; Aries is in the sky indicating the moment of creation; and it is Good Friday. In summary, the cosmos is speaking to Dante and telling him that even given his lost condi- tion, he will come to a good end. There is a harmonious structure to the cosmos where everything is in a beautiful balance and order. The spheres of the planets move around the earth because of their love for God, and they sing the music of the spheres.3 There is a cosmos that exists and not an endless, lonely universe. The cosmos (from the same root whence we get cosmetics) is the beautifier of God, showing forth the beauty of the Creator. There is a balance between the planets and the metals they form on the earth along with the four humors that flow within people. Lastly, from Dante we realize that it is love that drives people and not just the influence of the cosmos. The disordered loves of people drive them to the inferno, and the disordered loves of believers are purged in the trials of purgatory so that they can be filled with the love of God that they desire.4

This starts to change during the Renaissance and the scientific revolution. The language the cosmos speaks becomes the language of mathematics. Copernicus realizes that the math behind planetary motion becomes easier if the sun is in the center. Few people care, especially if he is only trying to save the appearances and make predictions easier. Kepler comes along and realizes that the math gets even more accurate if the sun is in the center (or at a focus) and the paths of the planets are ellipses instead of perfect circles. No big deal, as long as the attention is on making the math easier. Galileo, however, had the audacity to say that the universe moves the way Kepler describes it in reality. Newton comes along and figures out that the same math that can describe motion on the earth describes the motion of the heavens. What is called the mechanical philosophy becomes the dominant idea for understanding the universe. God is now seen as a great engineer that built a wonderful machine we are to study and now we glorify Him by figur- ing out its laws.

Life, however, could not be explained by the mecha- nists. Living things had to be accounted for by God’s direct action into creation. Living things were too complicated and thus God must have had to stick His hand into creation to make living things instead of creating a law that account- ed for them. So the 18th and early 19th centuries gave rise to the Romantic reaction against mechanism. Then Darwin developed his theory of how new species originate by the mechanism of natural selection, thus linking all organisms together through descent from a common ancestor. Now the mechanistic philosophy was complete (focus on material and efficient causes), and the total reversal of the worldview from Dante and the Middle Ages to our current one was finished. The cosmos that moved by love is now a vast emptiness of objects operating by law-like mechanism. Peo- ple who were image bearers of God with disordered loves are now just sophisticated animals struggling for survival, or ‘nature red in tooth and claw.’5 Pride as the deepest of sins becomes the self-esteem of success.6 Material things that were pointers to spiritual realities become meaningless cogs in a pointless machine. Beauty, and finally goodness and truth, become relative.7 Ironically, while Darwin built his theory of evolution on the idea that all nature is at war, current evolutionary theorists understand that nature also works by cooperation and interdependence. So the cosmos of Dante that was moved by love is perhaps lost unneces- sarily. It may be a perspective that needs to be recovered. Perhaps there is a place for natural philosophy and the exploration of formal and final causes within creation and not just the material and efficient.

So what hath Dante to do with biology? When biology is taught in an historical progression, Dante helps students understand the medieval worldview so that Dar- win can be understood as the completion of the worldview of our modern culture. As classical educators we want to innoculate our students against the modern worldview of meaningless materialism, the pride of self-esteem, the sepa- ration of God from His creation, and the lack of integration of disciplines found in modern education. Teaching biology using the above sequence of topics allows for the integra- tion of knowledge and helps students understand the worldview shift that has taken place from the Middle Ages to now. This provides a platform for seeing things differ- ently. Discussion of origins that is ripe for creating division is situated within an historical context, thus reducing ten- sion and allowing for understanding the complexities of the issue. Scripture is filled with verses of creation speaking. Perhaps exploring Dante in biology class can open students’ minds to seeing the creation outside the confines of modern science and thus hearing what the book of nature has to say.