A Botanist Grows Into a Generalist
To manage our planet's future, says Peter Raven, we need people with broad knowledge. INTERVIEW
ST. LOUIS — MIDWAY through a leisurely interview in his modern glass-walled office, botanist Peter Raven puts into words what is obvious from his demeanor. ``I love what I do,'' he says with characteristic energy. ``I really, genuinely, thoroughly enjoy what I do.''
These days, what he does carries him far beyond the lab. Outside his office stretch the luxuriant, well-manicured grounds of the Missouri Botanical Garden, of which he is the director. On an easel by his chair is an architect's rendering of the Tzimbazaza Park in Tananarive, Madagascar, which he is helping to design.
On the wall are photographs of Brazilian rain forests, on which he is a recognized authority. On the shelf behind him sit copies of textbooks he has co-authored, including ``The Biology of Plants,'' still a best-seller in its field. On the table sits the directory of the National Academy of Sciences, of which he is home secretary.
Yet he still manages time for research. Next year, when he concludes his stint as a MacArthur Fellow, he'll be completing some 20 years of work that have made him an expert on the Onagraceae - the evening primrose family, of which fuchsia is an example.
What attracts him to botany? ``Plants, along with algae and some photosynthetic bacteria, are the only organisms that have the ability to capture energy from the sun through the process of photosynthesis,'' he explains. ``We by no means fully understand the process of photosynthesis - yet we and all other living things depend on it.''
``I think biology must be one of the most satisfying careers because the things you are studying are so absolutely and endlessly real and interesting and directly important,'' he adds. ``You never have to doubt the validity and interest of what you are doing.''
For Dr. Raven, that interest began early. As a boy in California, he recalls with a chuckle, ``I always had insect collections, boxes of insects, and then plants. I started collecting plants somewhat seriously when I was something like ten - drying them in telephone books on a piece of paper.''
Even as a child, he contributed some of his specimens to the herbarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which he joined at the age of 8. ``You know,'' he explains, ``a herbarium has a whole range of plants specimens from all over the place. And an additional well-labeled specimen saying where you got it and something about it - the color of the flowers - is still fairly valuable.''
That early relationship with the California Academy - proving that even a youth could make worthwhile contributions to science - left an indelible mark. Not surprisingly, when it came time to declare a major at the University of California at Berkeley, he chose botany. Doctoral work at the University of California-Los Angeles, followed by post-doctoral work at the British Museum and at Kew Gardens outside of London, led him eventually to a professorship at Stanford University.
It was there, he says, that he began to broaden his range of interests - moving beyond botany and beyond Western culture. Joining with anthropologist Kim Romney, he spent several years doing field work on the folk taxonomy of the Tzeltal Indians of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico.
And unlike some researchers, whose careers carry them into ever-narrower expertise, Raven has found his reach continually expanding - away from specialization and into the generalist's camp. He calls it ``specializing in generality.''
``I have a personality that likes a diversity of things,'' he says. ``I love reading. I love different ways of presenting things. In the universities of the country, there is an enormous tendency to be narrow - particularly if you are a faculty member. ...The rewards in the university system are not great for breadth. You tend to be rather punished for breadth.''
Yet the risk of such specialization, he says, is boredom - unless it is balanced by a kind of intellectual outreach that seeks to ``make connections'' among areas of knowledge. That, of course, also has its risks. ``Obviously, if you specialize in breadth you could be very superficial,'' he notes with a smile, ``and then people can attack you.''
Specialists, he insists, are essential, ``because otherwise we won't have any information.'' Yet the real need for the future, he says, is breadth. ``People who are flexible - communicators willing to think about the relationships between fields - are going to be desperately needed. It's not a matter of morality, it's not a matter of piety. It's simply a matter of a rapidly growing 5.2 billion people managing one not very large planet together.''
To help educate such generalists at the university level, Raven calls for ``rigorous interdisciplinarity with a firm grounding in the fields.'' In that way, he says, undergraduates could be given ``a flavor of what is happening to the world environmentally - what things control what, what it all means, what it is going to mean to them.''
Raven sees ``an appalling lack of knowledge about science'' today in the United States. Yet given such highly visible problems as toxic dumps and air pollution, he says, it's not surprising that some people feel that ``science caused all of the ills in the world. ... On the other hand, in a modern society, science is the only way that we can possibly manage our environment sensibly.''
What will be the shape of botanical research in the 21st century?
``We are going to learn enormously important fundamental facts,'' he says, that will allow humanity to ``put in place communities and crops that are going to lead to greater stability and support for human beings.'' Given the fact that only three kinds of plants - corn, wheat, and rye - produce 65 percent of all of the energy consumed by human beings, and the fact that ``there are very few cultivated plants that have been in cultivation for less than 2,000 years,'' the potential for new discoveries is vast. So is the need for them, given the extent to which population pressures are threatening the environment and producing poverty, malnutrition, and starvation.
Some of those discoveries, says Raven, will come from a greater understanding of secondary metabolites - compounds which in the plant world are ``largely used to discourage feeding by insects, or infection by fungi or other diseases.
Knowing how to work with them, he says, will lead to all sorts of agricultural and industrial innovations in products such as cellulose, waxes, fats, oils, in new forms of biomass for conversion into energy, and more efficient systems of forestry.
``All productivity is biological productivity, ultimately,'' he stresses. So the questions for the future, he concludes, are, ``How do we use it? How do we understand it? How do we modify it? How do we do better with it? What are we going to put on the moon or Mars if we get there?''
Next Monday: Molecular biologist Leroy Hood.