Aesthetics as Suspect

Gentiana ligustica, photo Botanical Garden of Fribourg

An article published last year deals with bias in the selection of plants for botanical studies (Adamo et al., 2021).  A survey of 280 investigations published between 1975 and 2020 on a well-studied alpine flora found that “morphological and colour traits, as well as range size, have significantly more impact on species choice for wild flowering plants than traits related to ecology and rarity” (p. 574).  Specifically, plants with blue flowers, those that were relatively tall, and those with larger flowers were more likely to be selected along with plants with wider ranges.  None of this is really news since a number of studies using digitized herbarium specimens have found spatial, temporal, and trait biases (Daru et al., 2018; Troudet et al., 2017).  However, the emphasis here on what the authors term “aesthetic” traits drew attention, with Nature (“Flower Power: Pretty Plants Are the Most Studied,” 2021) and Scientific American (“A Flashy Focus,” Kramer, 2021) running news stories including a photo of a blue gentian flower from the journal article.

In their conclusion, the authors came down quite heavily on the problems associated with this bias.  If researchers were attracted by color, form, and size rather than the conservation status particularly of rare plants, then the species that need the most attention would not be getting it:  “This apparently superficial preference has implicit and undesired effects as it translates into an aesthetic bias in the data that form the basis for scientific research and practices.”  They continue, “. . . it would be desirable to develop measures to counteract it, given the potentially negative impact on our understanding of the ecology and evolution of plants and the conservation of vital plant biodiversity” (p. 576). 

In their introduction, Adamo et al. write:  “These biases should be taken into account to inform more objective plant conservation efforts “(p. 574), thus juxtaposing science as objective and aesthetics as subjective.  I take umbrage with this and their implication that “aesthetic” is superficial and undesirable, therefore antithetical to scientific research.  My dissertation was on the aesthetic of biology, so I admit to my own bias, but this work taught me that the aesthetic is an integral part of scientific inquiry and cannot be expunged.  The two are not in opposition in part because the standard mind/body dichotomy is simply wrong.  There is more and more evidence that brain function is intimately interwoven with the physiology of the rest of the body, and so therefore are thinking and feeling.  Feelings generate thoughts and vice versa (Damasio, 2000). 

As far as attraction to large, brightly colored flowers is concerned, as Adamo et al. admit, this bias may be part of our biology.  We are a species that relies a great deal on sight, so in scanning a green landscape, a contrasting color is likely to stand out (Arnheim, 1969).  In studies of collection bias based on herbarium specimens, some researchers found that there was a bias toward collecting white flowers (Panchen et al., 2019) and more than one study has found a bias against collecting plants with green or brownish inflorescences, described as “unattractively colored” in one article (Schmidt-Lebuhn et al., 2013, p.  905).  There are biases for tall plants in one article (Williams & Pearson, 2019) and perennials over annuals in another (Daru et al., 2018).  There are also biases against collecting spiny plants:  this might also be seen as aesthetic in nature:  getting stuck repeatedly is not pleasurable (Schmidt-Lebuhn et al., 2013).  Spatial collecting biases are well-documented and myriad, with sites near roads or railroads, populated areas, and research institutions being more often visited than those that are remote and difficult to access (Haque et al., 2017).  This may also be seen as at least partially aesthetic in origin.  Botanists are human beings who like their creature comforts.

But not all biases are driven by aesthetics.  Colonial powers directed a great deal of collecting in the past, as witnessed by the large Asian, African, and Latin American collections in Europe (Brockway, 1979).  Collection today can often be influenced by a collector’s or an institution’s research interests for a particular family or class.  Since the early modern era, useful plants have been sought after, and this trend continues with quests for crop wild relatives and medicinal plants.  Mark Nesbitt (2014) of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew notes that useful plants are over-represented in herbaria worldwide.  What digitization of specimens on a large scale has done is to make these biases much easier to discover because large data sets can be analyzed without actually examining each specimen.  Now all types of biases are more identifiable and therefore more addressable. 

What is important to me about the study on alpine plants is that is brings aesthetics front and center into a discussion of scientific research, something that doesn’t happen very often.  Many scientists will discuss their attraction to certain topics or species or types of research, but it doesn’t usually get written about in journal articles.  This perpetuates the assumption that science is an “objective” activity.  It neglects what Gerald Holton (1973) calls the “private side of science:”  how science is really done—with all its joys, mistakes, brilliant insights, and wrong turns that get edited out of publications.  John Dewey (1932) argued that any deeply lived experience, and research is definitely that, is an aesthetic experience.  This is the topic I want to explore in the next three posts in this series on the role aesthetics play in collecting and preparing specimens, studying them, and communicating about them.

References

Adamo, M., Chialva, M., Calevo, J., Bertoni, F., Dixon, K., & Mammola, S. (2021). Plant scientists’ research attention is skewed towards colourful, conspicuous and broadly distributed flowers. Nature Plants, 7(5), 574–578. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-021-00912-2

Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual Thinking. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Brockway, L. B. (1979). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Academic Press.

Damasio, A. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. San Diego: Mariner.

Daru, B. H., Park, D. S., Primack, R. B., Willis, C. G., Barrington, D. S., Whitfeld, T. J. S., Seidler, T. G., Sweeney, P. W., Foster, D. R., Ellison, A. M., & Davis, C. C. (2018). Widespread sampling biases in herbaria revealed from large-scale digitization. New Phytologist, 217(2), 939–955. https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.14855

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch.

Flower Power: Pretty plants are the most studied. (2021). Nature, 593, 317.

Haque, Md. M., Nipperess, D. A., Gallagher, R. V., & Beaumont, L. J. (2017). How well documented is Australia’s flora? Understanding spatial bias in vouchered plant specimens. Austral Ecology, 42(6), 690–699. https://doi.org/10.1111/aec.12487

Kramer, J. (2021). A flashy focus. Scientific American, 325(2), 24.

Nesbitt, M. (2014). Use of herbarium specimens in ethnobotany. In J. Salick, K. Konchar, & M. Nesbitt (Eds.), Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (pp. 313–328). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Panchen, Z. A., Doubt, J., Kharouba, H. M., & Johnston, M. O. (2019). Patterns and biases in an Arctic herbarium specimen collection: Implications for phenological research. Applications in Plant Sciences, 7(3), e01229. https://doi.org/10.1002/aps3.1229

Schmidt-Lebuhn, A. N., Knerr, N. J., & Kessler, M. (2013). Non-geographic collecting biases in herbarium specimens of Australian daisies (Asteraceae). Biodiversity and Conservation, 22(4), 905–919. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-013-0457-9

Troudet, J., Grandcolas, P., Blin, A., Vignes-Lebbe, R., & Legendre, F. (2017). Taxonomic bias in biodiversity data and societal preferences. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 9132. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-09084-6

Williams, J., & Pearson, K. D. (2019). Examining collection biases across different taxonomic groups: Understanding how biases can compare across herbarium datasets. American Journal of Undergraduate Research, 15(4), 47–53. https://doi.org/10.33697/ajur.2019.005

3 thoughts on “Aesthetics as Suspect

  1. Hello Maura,
    I’ve been enjoying your wonderful blog for some time now (months if not going on years). Maybe I’m partial to the topic of biases, but this piece struck me as especially praiseworthy.
    Bravo, and please continue your excellent writing.

  2. Pingback: Aesthetics of Doing Botany | Herbarium World

  3. Pingback: Aesthetics of Communication | Herbarium World

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