I fear that’s just about some wrap up thoughts, hopefully engaging what’s wrong with botany, given it’s a rather nice science.
Botany is probably accepted as, or broadly defined as plant sciences. Wikipedia seems to think that. My PhD advisor did too. I think I disagree, and I’m probably wrong, but there’s nothing bad in being wrong. That’s just fair game. Rather, and maybe because this is deeply enrooted in childhood misconceptions (and childhood doesn’t necessarily mean childish –my kids say that!), I tend to define botany as the probable antic way: the science of plant systematics.Why would I? Well, maybe because systematics is the mother science of biology, because biology in its modern acceptation is born out of the need to organize living things once they were discovered. I’m fully aware that this is probably wrong too, I’m no epistemologist nor science historian. What I mean is that closely correlated to Western world obsession with discovering the world itself and the way things work, taxonomy arose and was the main production of biologists when
science biology was beginning to organise as what it is today.
Why would I? Well, because I have to admit that I don’t personnally feel like I’m a botanist. I don’t think I qualify, academically speaking, as an authority in botany (even a minor one, don’t give it any pompous or condescending meaning!). Thought this is probably wrong too, I eventually developped some expertise in palynology with systematic bouts. But let’s dig further. I am not that good in using ID keys in botany. I know, it’s all coming from a too early use of them, and as a kid it never felt good because keys were asking for details you usually don’t have when you have a specimen at hand (like, say, both flowers and fruits). I always felt it was an exercise in frustration. Maybe that’s why I turned to things more functional (that is, plant ecology), where you don’t need temporal omniscience in your specimen’s characteristics. Anyhow, this basic definition contrast led me to feel in a paradoxical situation.
I don’t claim expertise in botany, though I developped quite a correct skill in identifying plants from my childhood’s region*. I would easily name plants to a Genus level quickly and probably without that many mistakes. Does it make qualify as a botanist? I have a great colleague who just does the same, except that he pushes the skill (the art) up to the species (and even infra-species) level. That is, if we hypothesize about this flora (the temperate Old World one) that on average Genera have 10 species (I made these numbers up), my friend is actually ten times more knowledgeable than I am. So when I have an ID question, I go ask him (so should you!). He’s not the only friend I met with this kind of indecent ability to name plants (to even greater geographical or evolutionary scales). I would consider them actual botanists. None made it to Academia (actually, that’s also because they weren’t much interested into getting a PhD). So here’s the paradox: in my country, people able to teach Academic botany (which actually includes both plant biology and systematics) became so few that any position will often have a direct and single selection round (usually you have a first pre-selection applicant pool that is reduced to a few fitter applicants for a second round). Ang guess what? I would generally fit in. My research area is more “plant ecology” (more specifically plant evolutionary ecology) than systematics, but I would fit for positions with a heavy botany teaching load.
If you think twice about what this means, you understand that botany is a science in danger. When you’re in need to hire people from adjacent fields to fill gaps in teaching, that’s not a good situation. Maybe I’m wrong and there’s nothing behind the suitcase. Or maybe there’s a real danger that the science is completely disappearing. Here’s the paradox: that I don’t feel entitled to pretend being a botanist but hiring committees would do**, simply reflects the dramatic shortage in actual botanists. And I think that botanists are right when they say it’s damn so cool and fun (because it is), but they’re also in need to tell you that. Else botany will go extinct. Well, fortunately not so fast, since in some places there’s enough monney to sustain botanists (as a part of a society production) and so much work to do (flora to explore), such as, say, Brasil or South Africa. But it appears that once a flora is known enough, discovering and organising knowledge about it becomes a lesser priority: societies need to sustain people with this knowledge decreases, even if great interest from its members is still alive and well.
* Actually, this skill is good enough to have botanists think I might be one. I mean, it’s enough above average skill that great people are deceived into thinking it’s much better than it really is. I played that card to my advantage in Academia, but there’s guilt and shame associated with deceit.
** I guess that having plant ecology people is probably better than have teach-touch uncommitted scientists from molecular biology backgrounds spreading wrongies as facts (I’ve seen this happen: teacher making up family names instead of simply saying they don’t know or they have to check… I tell you that’s really bad and not only to botany) –Hey I’m not saying that plant molecular biologists are not able to teach botany neither, but they do better if they have any interest in it***. Which they don’t always have.
*** Would we thus have to define a botanist as someone who cares about botany? Okay, I’ll concede I might be a bit of a botanist.