“In this century we have managed to recover the connection between art and nature”

Nearly a decade ago, a book on ecology sought to vindicate natural history and the value of observation as the basis of the discipline. With their approaches, the ecologist Aníbal Pauchard and the late researcher, Rafe Sagarin, influenced the field of ecological learning. Today, Dr. Pauchard reflects on the validity of this pioneering publication that invites us to understand nature in tune with the idea that all reason comes from perception.

Ecology and observation. Expanding the approach of science to understand a complex world (published in Spanish by the University of Concepción), is the title of a book that sought to revive the value of the observational and sensory for ecological learning, a publication that generated some criticism, mainly in the field of experimental ecology, but which, as the text itself clarifies, did not seek to contradict this approximation but to broaden the ways in which nature was perceived from science.

Opening approaches that could be reductionist through “a more naive approach to nature”, through the sensitive detection of patterns and in attention to the methodologies of natural history, were some of the relevant motivations of the book written by two academics who met through the forum of a scientific journal. “Rafe (Sagarin) was one of those people you meet by chance,” says Aníbal Pauchard, doctor in forest ecology, and associate researcher at the Laboratory of Biological Invasions (LIB), a joint initiative between the University of Concepción and the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity (IEB), where he is currently its director.

The researcher recalls that after reading a comment by Sagarin–who was a marine ecologist–on a publication related to ecology, he realized that they thought in a similar way, so he decided to write him an email. Since then, a fraternal and intellectual friendship arose that, over time, prompted them to write a book together.

“First we started off joking,” Pauchard narrates. While Sagarin wanted to make a “revolution in ecology”, the Chilean researcher suggested that it was better “an evolution”, in view of the complexities of the concept of revolution in the light of Latin American political history. However, both agreed that “we had to break the shell of the idea that there is only one great science, or that there are ultra-proven and almost dogmatic deductive hypothetical methods regarding how to do science.” 

Although Rafe Sagarin died in a traffic accident three years after the book was published, his friend and co-author, Aníbal Pauchard, remembers him by continuing to think about those topics that they wrote together and that, over time, have influenced various generations of ecologists through the realization that “all good scientists must remember that their theories and ideas are subject to refutation at any time”, refutations that may arise from new observations. 

A little over a decade has passed since the first edition of the book. How has the landscape of observation in ecology been transformed? Have the perspectives been balanced or are the criticisms regarding the anecdotal function or random correlations of the observational in connection with natural history still valid?

Aníbal Pauchard: It’s a good question that I have been thinking about, since for me the subject of the book is super emotional, because unfortunately my co-author passed away, as I told you. Several ideas were left unwritten. To some degree, we both wanted to complain, and for the younger generation to feel that it was okay to complain about science being decoupled from reality. Everything became reductionist in experiments under controlled conditions.We thought it was reasonable to approach nature more naively.

That was as true then as it is now, even as generations change. Something that has changed, on the other hand, is how we talk about climate change, for example, it is no longer just a scientific issue, but something that we all have very close to our skin. When we did this book that concept was still mainly approached from a scientific perspective.

Another change is that work with databases has increased. If you look at any scientific journal, they are publishing papers with millions of data every day. That has taken off, but what perhaps hasn’t taken off as much is the more philosophical part of the matter, how we understand nature as a whole. We continue to think about it through reductionist visions of how I look at this angle and you look at another. Each one sees their little part and in the end we make a kind of image. But sometimes you have to sit down and think about how to make a more holistic image of what we are seeing. And I think that has not advanced much.

In this sense, in the book you refer to aesthetics as a need to articulate visions and imagine those conceptualizations reflected through perceptions and sensations. Perhaps this has to do, in some way, with utopias. To the extent that there has not been a utopian project capable of reformulating and uniting views, this is reflected in the proposed diagnosis…

We continue to work on tracks that go separately, fragmented, but that give us success, because they are gratifying from a personal point of view, of scientific productivity, of results. In other words, we understand much better how such a process works, but when it comes to understanding how these processes are integrated or related–and perhaps I keep this characteristic, as you say, of aesthetics to make the conceptual sketch of something–our brain falls short and we are left as primates. So, that scares us and we go back to doing what we know how to do. 

It is necessary to think of a vision in which we can better understand the pieces of nature and where we fit as human beings. There is a vision that’s between humanist and holistic in the book. The purest naturalist scientist, the one of pure natural sciences, Descartes type, sought to get rid of humanism and human identity. We had several of these conversations with Rafe and it always caught our attention to think about why there is so much fear of recognizing one’s own biases.

What projects/initiatives–both in Chile and abroad–do you consider have contributed to strengthening this perspective and, in particular, the value of observational ecology?

I work at IPBES, which is the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for Public Policy. And although this arises more from the social sciences, it enables a meeting point between social urgencies and the world of natural science. I see that there’s a sign of this revolution that Rafe was talking about, that is, of thinking the world upside down. Now it is valuable to understand, for example, how much indigenous and local communities can contribute to global knowledge and integrate it. IPBES does not have a perfect solution on how to do this, but there is a desire for language to build the reality of science. Maybe this is not so contained in the book, but it was something we discussed. The idea is how conceptualization allows science to be built. 

Also, in the ecological societies of Great Britain or the United States, I see that they are opening up to the socioecological. Here in Chile too, and I appreciate the creation of the Chilean Society of Socioecology and Ethnoecology (SOSOET ), for example. Although they come from other disciplines, they have similar concepts. Another example is the work of my colleague Cristóbal Pizarro, who addresses the socio-ecological issue aligned with the ornithological. Sometimes we have very good conversations about perception of the landscape. Now, I think that in Chile we are still super far from the idea of doing science that incorporates the human scale. I think that we are still lacking in that, and then one pleads guilty because perhaps we are not making all the necessary efforts.

Going back to the book, you state that it is necessary to develop sensitivity to natural patterns and processes on broad scales of space and time. How do the scales of cultural subjectivities interact with the eventual claim of objectivity in the sciences? If you could give us an example.

It’s complex, because sensitivity to the natural world in human beings is created from small scales and then  expanded to medium and then larger scales to reach a global perspective, right? It’s a process that is closely related to psychology and brain development and maturation. In the book I give the example of my three-year-old son, that’s how old he was when I wrote it, now he is going to turn 16.

One sees that there is a certain sensitivity and perhaps, sometimes we want to skip a step and come to understand great global processes, understand climate change, mass extinction, but it turns out that that person has not even seen a snail in his garden or has not understood why there are certain birds there and not others. It’s not about blaming anyone, but rather that many times we don’t even give ourselves or children the time, parents sometimes don’t make the time to go out and play in their backyards , and as a society we don’t provide children with enough t parks or natural places. And then we want them to be experts in the energy cycle and how to reduce the human footprint. How do we jump like that? I think that also happens in science.

With all the respect I have for those who do mathematical modeling, it happens that many times they use large databases and they are really great at doing algorithms, but they are not necessarily very clear about what object of study they are evaluating. So sometimes it happens that we have a gap between the object of study and the researcher. That would be a false sense of objectivity, because we believe that by separating ourselves from the object we have objectivity, at least that is what we have been taught, although perhaps it is less taught today.

We don’t understand anything about the object except the angle from which we are looking at it, it’s like trying to understand the stars from Earth. We know that we only look at an angle, at that star that perhaps no longer exists, and we perceive that light. It is exactly the same: we are looking only from that small angle and also, with a cultural and emotional baggage, an issue that has changed and is also linked to scientific colonialism. We cannot abstract ourselves from the eyes, the head, the brain, we are not outside of our body. So this objectivism, which is like a panacea, like the Holy Grail for scientists, is contradictory. There is no need to be afraid of scientific non-determinism, although I know that many are nervous about that.

I was thinking about those relationships that are stated in the book on the predictive and how it seems that you have to open up more to that randomness of nature, in terms of it being something unknown, in order to eventually predict…

Yes, don’t be scared of that, because it’s a bit like quantum science in regards to the duality of particles and waves… and that’s not why you can’t make models in quantum science, you can do a lot of things, that is, chance does not prevent making decisions. That is also important to indicate, because there is a prediction range. You have to live with uncertainty, even culturally and also in terms of probabilities. We have made some progress in this regard, at the level of statistics, above all. Conceptualization still costs because people want precise answers and are not very open to uncertainty.

You mention systems that were being socialized at that time, at the level of software such as R or satellite technologies. Also in the line of algorithms, there is a very current allusion, which appeals to a human-machine hybridity: that of the ecological cyborg (developed by Carlos Martínez del Río) that highlights the importance of spending hours on site in nature. What do you think are the risks and potentials of  the irruption of Artificial Intelligence in nature conservation?

I’ve heard a lot and have been absorbing the concept, but I hadn’t tied it to what we talked about in the book and it’s interesting. I think there are two sides to it: if people manage to connect with nature and, at the same time, feed these models with more information, with more insights and more data, but also with their own angles of observation, maybe these tools can be super powerful and good.

You can also do the lazy approach and say ‘hey, actually I already fed those models, there were people who took data in the last century, I run the models and I’m good’, and that would be a huge mistake because they would be thinking that I have more information, when really it’s just an iteration of, let’s say, a machine that may seem smart, but in reality what it’s doing is just replicating what it already knows.

The important thing is that Artificial Intelligence is not a pretext for abandoning on-site research or taking data. We must have even smarter field contact . We can ask Artificial Intelligence questions about how to do things, but never stop having field input, especially thinking about these multiple perspectives, and I would like to connect this with scientific colonialism. Although we say something about the biases in the book, now it has already been named. Colonialism implies that science comes from the northern hemisphere, from the great economic powers, where they have much more, and that center is super powerful. You look at any distribution map of plants, animals, fungi, and most of the points come from Europe and North America, Asia a bit, but Russia, South America, Africa, are missing. And we also don’t have researchers who have that cultural perspective applied to  systems.

There’s a tremendous cultural bias associated with this data. So, if you, for example, going back to AI, ask something to an AI that has only taken those types of data, imagine the bias it will have. Fortunately, this topic is gaining a lot of resonance, but there are still tremendous gaps.

At some point you also mentioned the cultural gaps between artists and scientists, at the same time, the book emphasizes the importance of art and education for observational ecology. In your opinion, what has been the role of the arts and education in revealing the scientific potential of natural history in pursuit of biological conservation?

It would be necessary to separate eras, because the boom in natural history, within the great ‘Western discoveries’ in colonialist terms, so to speak, is linked to the Western exploration that took place in the 19th century, and I think that in art it was super present and we are lucky that it was like that. In addition, there is the presence of poetry, graphic art, also music, etc., right? But I think that was lost in the 20th century, that is, the last century was the time of progress, especially after the Second World War, of thinking about how human beings are self-sufficient and somehow better than nature, unfortunately. In the 20th century there is a dissociation between art and nature, at least I have that perception.

Fortunately, in this century, despite all the damage we are going through, we have managed to recover the connection between art and nature, and in such a beautiful way. For example, now I am seeing many illustration books in Chile, in which there is a whole movement, even nature comics, things that really open the mind. from children to older people.

For example, here we had Alicia Hoffman, who unfortunately passed away. She worked writing books and had people help her with the graphic part, because she understood art, she was very holistic. Working in our institute with Juan Armesto, she was able to make these narratives in which there is also a lot of graphic elements. I like to see that current that is emerging.

I precisely wanted to return to Chile, and to the recent approval of the bill that creates the Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service (SBAP)… Rafe Sagarin and you called for breaking the feeling of disconnection between resource users, scientists, conservationists and managers of public policies. Do you think that this law could contribute in this line? What milestones occurred during this process that led you and the Chilean Ecology Society to support the urgent need to approve this law?

The first question is difficult, because I think we still do things quite old-fashioned or traditional, so it’s going to depend a lot on how you set up the ministry and the Advisory Councils, as well as how you open up to society. I don’t know the legislative details, but I think it also has a lot to do with implementation (…) In that sense, I think there are still many stages to incorporate more components.

It took a lot to get that law out (…). It was complex to convince parliamentarians, governments, businessmen, ordinary people about the importance of biodiversity. It was necessary to argue why this would be a priority when eventually there would be no more money for health services, or why prevent someone from using natural resources however they want if they own a piece of land. The sense of the private in Chile is very high and the public is very secondary (…). And that is serious. All this was reflected in the discussion.

I take my hat off to the people who promoted the law, like Minister Maisa Rojas, although obviously she is the one who ends the process, there are many people behind it, but in these situations having achieved the project is a great step (…) There is still a lot of education in the broad sense, a conversation, learning as a society about what nature is and how without nature there is no human being (…).

*Aníbal Pauchard is PhD in Forest Ecology from the University of Montana, United States. He is currently a Full Professor at the Faculty of Forestry Sciences of the University of Concepción. He is currently a Full Professor at the Faculty of Forest Sciences of the University of Concepción. PhD in Forest Ecology from the University of Montana (United States). He is currently a Full Professor at the Faculty of Forest Sciences of the University of Concepción. He is director of the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity (IEB-Chile) and founded the Laboratory of Biological Invasions (LIB), an initiative in conjunction with the University of Concepción. His research focus is the ecology of biological invasions and their impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem functions. He is also a contributor to IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform for Science and Policy on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and is associate editor of international scientific journals such as the Journal of Applied Ecology and Biological Invasions.



Violet Bustos Vaccia

Violet Bustos Vaccia. Journalist, graduated in Data Visualization and Master in American Aesthetics from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She has experience in various fields of communications: creation and foundation of written media, content development for multiple formats, digital strategies, press, cultural and academic management. She has specialized in digital and digital aesthetics. She is currently Director of Communications Fundación Mar Adentro.