Looking at Marine Biology through a Historical Lens

The history of the field of marine biology has fascinated me for my whole life. I chose to write an essay about Jacques Cousteau (marine filmmaker and inventor of the AquaLung) when I was eight. I read The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson (who saved the biosphere from DDT) multiple times when I was eleven. I devoured Between Pacific Tides by Ed Ricketts (marine ecology pioneer) when I was sixteen. One of my favorite websites to peruse is the Marine Ecology Family Tree!

It’s really no surprise that I created a course entitled Marine Biology Through History!

But, my interest extends beyond my pure fascination with the field’s history. I believe studying the history of marine biology (and ecology) gives us a valuable perspective, particularly for relative newcomers like myself and my students.

Learning about the history of our field contextualizes biological and ecological details. Exploring the rich histories of marine institutions, scientists, and vessels allows us to understand how the field has evolved throughout the centuries. Plus, we can learn when the field discovered something for the first time–which may have been earlier than we’d expect. I have been repeatedly surprised by how much accurate information I’ve read in publications from the 1900s and 1800s!

History can also teach us humility. Amongst the accurate information lives a treasure trove of past beliefs that turned out to be inaccurate. One of my favorite examples is the paper nautilus–scientists used to believe that females used their specialized arms not for building their egg cases but for sailing!

Although these misled beliefs can be extremely entertaining (particularly for students) they also remind us that, eventually, some of what we now believe to be fact will one day be proven wrong. As we continue to pursue knowledge, it is inevitable that we will discover more inaccuracies hiding in textbooks.

I’ve found that it can be beneficial to frame our collective knowledge base as ever-changing rather than fixed, especially in educational settings. During my courses, we often discover changes to scientific nomenclature or information together, cementing the fact that the field continues to evolve.

Perhaps most importantly, history can push us towards a more inclusive path. As was the case in many fields, marine biology was historically dominated by white, straight, cisgender men. That being said, many influential people in historically underrepresented groups overcame discrimination to contribute to our field. (A particularly poignant example is the life of Dr. Roger Arliner Young.) And it’s important to remember how indigenous groups were excluded from many conservation/natural history conversations and that their ecosystem functioning knowledge was often disregarded.

Marine ecologists often speak about the benefit of species diversity. What about human diversity?

Reading the stories of people who pushed through societal boundaries to further scientific knowledge motivates me to do all I can to make my field more inclusive.

I choose to highlight the accomplishments of people from historically underrepresented groups in Marine Biology Through History. I feel it is important for students to see themselves in the history of this field as we move forward. Although we have made progress, there is still plenty of work to be done.

As they continue in their careers, I want to make sure that my students know that people of all sorts of backgrounds and identities have contributed to this field in the past and still contribute to it now. Our diversity as a species is something we ought to embrace.

I think my fascination with the history of my field has become less of a hobby and more of a responsibility. After all, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Isn’t it prudent to learn about who those giants were?