Values and Science In “A White Heron”
by Ilana Goldowitz, PhD
What happens to our ability to discover nature when the science world shuts out people with certain values?
In the 19th century, a collecting craze raged in the US and Europe. Biologists arranged expeditions to distant islands, hunters and amateur collectors stuffed birds and preserved ferns, and fashionable ladies wore exotic feathers and decorated their homes with framed specimens. Scientists wrote dense monographs comparing the forms and detailed structures of animals and plants, down to the number of hairs on a fly’s leg.
In her 1886 short story “A White Heron,” author Sarah Orne Jewett depicts the contrast in values and understanding of nature between the people of rural Maine and the “men of science” from the cities who relied on local knowledge to find specimens for their collections.
The story depicts a young man with a gun who comes to a community near the Maine coast in search of a particular “queer tall white bird”. “Do you cage ‘em up?” a local resident asks dubiously. “Oh, no, they’re stuffed and preserved, dozens and dozens of them,” the visitor answers.
The ornithologist meets a young girl called Sylvia, who is fascinated with the natural world and spends most of her time “straying out of doors.” Though Sylvia has little formal education, it’s clear that she possesses intimate knowledge of wild creatures and their lives in the woods around her.
Sylvia knows she’s seen the bird the ornithologist is looking for. In exchange for showing him where this “white heron” lives, the ornithologist makes Sylvia a tantalizing offer — not only much-needed money, but a glimpse into a world of exploration and scientific learning on a larger scale.
Admiring the young man’s lifestyle and knowledge, Sylvia goes out in secret early the next morning. She climbs a tall pine tree, and as she knew she could, she finds the white heron and watches as the “wild, light, slender bird” visits its mate sitting on a nest high in a hemlock tree.
Sylvia has a choice to make: gain the ornithologist’s approval, or stick with her intuitive valuing of animals’ lives over curiosity. Though tempted, Sylvia chooses to keep the location of the nest to herself, and the ornithologist goes away empty-handed, taking his scientific connections with him.
Reading “A White Heron” after six years in graduate school, it struck me that even today, Sylvia would never make it in a science career. Her values are a mismatch for how biology education and the research industry operate. But this is to the detriment of biology, because the story makes clear that the ethics that makes Sylvia an outsider to the scientific world are the same ethics that help her understand animals’ lives in the wild. For Sylvia, there seems to be a tradeoff between two incompatible ways of learning about nature, hers and that of the man who “killed the very birds he seemed to like so much.”
In the lab, 1880s and today
In a multitude of ways, from the publish-or-perish academic culture to the need for self-promotion, humble and observant personalities like Sylvia’s are filtered out of science. Today, whether intentionally or not, the research industry quickly enforces a “scientific” view of biology as something that happens in laboratory dishes, tubes, slides, and computerized genome sequences.
People who begin their science education with mismatched worldviews are shaped by how they’re taught to do science and what they’re told is “scientific.” Curt Yehnert, a white teacher working in reservation schools, tells the story of a student who had resisted dissecting a frog in biology class because to do so would violate her Navajo traditions.1 The teacher recalls his pride after (in Yehnert’s eyes) the student finally gained the “courage” to change her “concept of who she was” and dissected the frog. In a 2018 survey, college students from a variety of Native American groups reported conflicts between science lab requirements and requirements of their cultures — such as dissection taboos, beliefs that animal bodies should be returned to the earth, and prohibitions on killing or touching certain animals — and many of the respondents said they would opt out of science classes to avoid these conflicts.2
There’s a similar price of admission for some medical students. Dissecting a human cadaver is required in almost all US medical schools, which poses a problem for Jewish Kohanim (members of the Jewish priestly clan). Kohanim who are traditionally religious don’t touch or come near dead human bodies, and they are currently unable to study medicine in the US because of the cadaver dissection requirement. Other Jewish students face choices in classes or research labs. While Jewish traditions do not totally forbid research on animals, Judaism does limit this research based on necessity, avoiding cruelty to animals, and avoiding waste.
Some students may be willing to participate if everything is done respectfully, but this doesn’t always happen. Some of the cadavers that medical students dissect are sourced from donors, but according to an article in Johns Hopkins Magazine, others are unclaimed bodies or the bodies or people whose families didn’t have the financial resources to arrange a funeral.3 In biology classrooms, if students and teachers joke around during animal experiments and dissections, the lesson some students take away is that the only true scientific attitude is a cavalier, uncaring one.
Dr. Lori Alviso Alvord, Navajo surgeon and author, argues in an article that students should be allowed to “be fully themselves” and maintain their “moral integrity” even in medical school, and that granting exemptions to the dissection requirement for Navajo students and other “conscientious objectors” can facilitate the diverse body of physicians we need to treat our diverse population.4 A similar argument could be made regarding students who wish to enter medical or biological research.
Could biology with different ethics lead to different insights?
Limited by their techniques, most 19th-century collector-biologists focused on dead creatures and on static form and structure. If you’re just beginning to learn about the living things of a new place, form is the most obvious place to start.
Similarly, once European dissection taboos fell out of favor, Western scientific medicine developed an anatomy-first understanding of the human body, dividing up the body by organs and studying the characteristics and the diseases of each organ. This is still reflected in the names of many of our medical specialties (gastroenterology, nephrology, pulmonology, etc).
But form is not the only important aspect of biology. Biologists study creatures that adapt, respond to their environments, form complex interactions with other living things, and use their plasticity to shape themselves over time. Studying live organisms in the lab reveals other things, and studying them in the places where they actually live reveals still more.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, some strains of biology have focused on ever-smaller forms and structures, but opposing strains, such as systems biology, have developed a more dynamic view of biology as the science of living things and living systems that cannot be reduced to their parts. The focus on the static forms of proteins (as observed through X-ray crystallography) is giving way to an understanding that many proteins are in constant motion, and this unstructured motion is essential to their functions. A focus on structure made plants seem simple and microbes even simpler, but today, we’re discovering the complexity of microbial communities and of communication between microbes within our own bodies and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, medicine needs to respond to real humans living diverse, complex lives in a complex social world. In medicine, some of the cultures that forbade human dissection developed views of patients “not simply as a body, but as a whole being,” as Dr. Lori Alvord puts it.
Today, though, many students come into biology labs having had little contact with the natural world. And some biology programs don’t offer them much more. If only students from a narrow range of backgrounds succeed in science, they may be less likely to recognize the specific artificialities that laboratory studies can introduce. In the medical sciences, researchers from a narrow range of social and financial backgrounds may not recognize the pitfalls that can happen when drugs tested only in the narrow conditions of a controlled clinical trial are released for use in the complicated real world.
Ethics and experiences are linked to worldview, and worldview is linked to what you can imagine and discover. Our personalities and values shape our research questions, our hypotheses, where we choose to look for evidence, and how we interpret data. Even today, being someone with constraints – including ethical constraints – that change how you do science might actually let you observe something no one else can.
The “white heron” the ornithologist sought in Jewett’s story was most likely a snowy egret (Egretta thula). Like many other species during the collecting craze of the 1800s, the snowy egret was hunted nearly to extinction by collectors and because its plumes were popular in hat-making. Populations rebounded after a 1918 migratory bird treaty made hunting snowy egrets illegal, and the species is doing well today. In today’s world, researchers who don’t give up their personal values at the laboratory door will probably be the ones to figure out how we can discover more while doing less harm.
- Yehnert, Curt. Dissecting The Frog. Willamette Journal of the Liberal Arts Supplemental Series 8:50–54 (2001). https://archive.nwp.org/cs/public/download/nwp_file/11031/cyehnert_turningpoints.pdf?x-r=pcfile_d
- Williams, Deborah H. and Gerhard P. Shipley. Cultural taboos as a factor in the participation rate of Native Americans in STEM. International Journal of STEM Education 5, 17 (2018). https://stemeducationjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40594-018-0114-7
- Der Bedrosian, Jeanette. First-year medical students still rely on cadavers to learn anatomy. Johns Hopkins Magazine (2016). https://hub.jhu.edu/magazine/2016/winter/cadavers-anatomy-medical-school/#:~:text=As%20technology%20advances%2C%20so%20do,education%20in%20the%20United%20States.
- Alvord, Lori Arviso. Medical school accommodations for religious and cultural practices. AMA Journal of Ethics: Virtual Mentor. 15,3:198-201 (2013). https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/medical-school-accommodations-religious-and-cultural-practices/2013-03