Are UCT Students Shunning Biology and Conservation Subjects?

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From a discussion paper (04/2020) by Desalegn. Du Toit and Mills issued by the Brenthurst and Hailemariam & Roman Foundations
From a discussion paper (04/2020) by Desalegn. Du Toit and Mills issued by the Brenthurst and Hailemariam & Roman Foundations

Myth vs Reality at the University of Cape Town (UCT): Are ‘materialist’ black South African students shunning ‘biological’ and conservation-related subjects?

A UCT success story

One way UCT pre-adapted academically – three decades before ‘decolonialism’ and Fallism – was to promote research, education and action vis-à-vis the conservation sensu lato (see here, here , here and here) of Africa’s fabulous biota. This strategic adaptation sets the scene for future constructive transformation at a much broader level. A vision for this was outlined recently and superbly by Solomon Benatar – UCT Emeritus Professor of Medicine, Bioethics and Public Health:

The Covid-19 pandemic is a major tipping point in an increasingly unstable world. Now more than ever, we must recognise that our health and the long-term survival of our species are dependent on our interconnectedness. We need to urgently catalyse a peaceful, ecologically safe trajectory towards a more sustainable future with the progressive reduction of global inequities in wealth and health.”

Africa: The Conservation Continent

Biological conservation was not always a necessity in Africa. Unlike the situation for much of the rest of Earth, the longstanding view that pre-historic humans caused mass animal extinctions does not apply to Africa. Sadly, this biotic coexistence became threatened with the ‘Back-to-Africa’ invasion and colonization, culminating during the late 19th Century Scramble for Africa by Western European imperialists.

The ‘birth’ of Conservation Biology

By the 1970s, aggressive, protectionist, segregationist conservation and wildlife management began to be perceived as inadequate for long-term maintenance and evolution of functional, sustainably utilized and ecologically resilient landscapes. In short, protected areas are ‘islands’ inhabited by ‘living dead’ in a ‘sea’ of inhospitable landscape doomed to eventual biotic collapse over the long-term.

2 Conservation imageTo deal with this biodiversity ‘timebomb’, Conservation Biology was created as a synthetic field of biological science by a small group of professionally heterogenous biologists. South Africans published a vision for ‘landscape conservation’ in the 21st Century as early as 1989.

Responding to this scientific ‘opportunity’, in 1985, UCT’s Department of Zoology’s FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology (Fitztitute) changed its Mission Statement to:

“To promote and undertake scientific studies involving birds, and contribute to the practice affecting the maintenance of biological diversity and the sustained use of biological resources”

and (in 1990) created and launched (in 1992) an M.Sc. Post-graduate Programme in Conservation Biology (the highly successful CB Course). A recent South African CB graduate student, Elelwani Nenzhelele, who came from the University of Venda, commented on the CB Course:

“It’s important because we learn a lot from each other – more than we did in the class. We learn from each other’s experiences and knowledge about conservation issues, culture and traditions from all the people of different backgrounds. It is so nice to be in a diverse class because as much as you think you are different, at the end of the day we are the same HUMANS and our common goal is to make a world a better place.”

Elelwani went on to become a lecturer in Department of Biological and Agricultural Sciences at Sol Plaaitjie University in Kimberley. Her HoD is Dr Doug Harebottle, a UCT Conservation Biology Ph.D. graduate.

In 1993, UCT’s Department of Botany launched its Leslie Hill Institute for Plant Conservation. In 2016, conservation biologist Prof. Justin O’Riain (Biological Sciences)and socio-economist Prof. Nicoli Nattrass (School of Economics and Centre for Social Science Research) established and co-direct UCT’s Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), affiliated with UCT’s Faculties of Science, Humanities and Commerce.

Since the early 1990s, African Conservation Biology has evolved and constructively ‘decolonized’ considerably, with UCT at the forefront, to adapt to specific challenges relevant to the ‘Conservation Continent’.

Clearly, much more can and needs to be done by South African Conservation Scientists.

The Commentary that ‘hit the fan’

However, a recent Commentary by Nicoli Nattrass entitled “Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?” (hereafter the Commentary) on the status of “biology” – especially conservation biology – at UCT, published in the South African Journal of Science (hereafter SAJS), suggests that UCT “struggles to attract black South African students” and the Department of Biological Sciences may be failing to transform racially.

.The Commentary key “tentative” conclusions are that:

  1. Rather than “race” per se, “materialist” values [determined by a “standard” international set of questions] held by black South African university students (at least those at UCT) – stemming from their relatively disadvantaged backgrounds – may steer them towards subjects leading to more lucrative careers (e.g. “higher-paying” occupations: accountancy, law, etc.) instead of biology in general and conservation in particular.
  2. This, together with “the fact that very few [opportunistically sampled and demographically non-representative interviewed black] students were hostile to conservation” or harboured ‘anti-conservation’ ‘Fallist’ opinions, and some were even amenable to neo-Darwinian evolution of Modern Humans [based on their agreement that ‘Humans evolved from apes’], suggests that their interest in studying biology (and conservation biology in particular) might increase as the black middle-class grows and their dominant social values and “religiosity” – shaped by their socio-economic background – shift, with economic development, from a materialist to a post-materialist

 In short, post-materialistic “attitudes” can “overwhelm the effect of race”. This finding confirms Nattrass’ long-held view – outlined in her seminal book Class, Race and Inequality in South Africa – that there is a “persisting overlap between race and class” and that “the basis of inequality in South Africa from the mid-twentieth century to the early twenty-first century has shifted from race to class”.

The Nattrass ‘Affair’

The Nattrass ‘Affair’, ‘triggered’ by the two-page Commentary, is yet another avoidable clusterfk or shstorm? (used advisedly) at UCT from which no one involved will emerge unscathed. It generated a rapidly published flurry of often hyperbolic media-publications ‘for’ and ‘against’ it and Nattrass, and released a “can of worms” and “hornet nest” that pit Nattrass, against the UCT Executive (here, here and here) and its Black Academic Caucus (BAC – see also here).

My goals in this piece are to discuss the scholarly quality of Nattrass’ Commentary and her 36-page rebuttal (hereafter the Defence) also published in a Special Issue of the SAJS. I will attempt to deal with issues such as institutional racism, epistemological ‘violence’, ideological and political hegemony elsewhere.

My academic ‘take’ on the Commentary

First, the Commentary title. The title is highly ambitious in trying to answer a highly complex question. It is seriously misleading, since there is no substantive evidence in the public domain that suggests that black (or any other ‘group’ of) students are not (absolutely or relatively) shying away from studying biological/conservation science at UCT, let alone at any university nation-wide. Tactically (strategically?), given Nattrass’ status as a ‘white’ non-biologist and the racial basis of the title, the Commentary should have been reviewed before submission or even co-authored by veteran, ideally black, UCT [or from further afield] conservation biologists.

Second, Nattrass provides three possible answers (hypotheses?) to the Commentary title’s question:

  1. “A large part of the answer is obviously that persisting inequalities in the schooling system make it less likely that they will meet the entrance requirements for science courses.”
  2. “Notably, materialist values and aspirations (pertaining to occupation and income) as well as experience with pets and attitudes towards wildlife – all of which are likely also to be shaped by a student’s socio-economic background”.
  3. “Given the ‘Fallist’ protests of 2015/2016, another possibility is that wildlife conservation itself might be regarded as colonial, and students might perceive a trade-off between social justice and conservation”.

With regard to answer 1, the are no deficiencies in the high school biology curriculum that undermine students’ ability to understand and appreciate biology in general and evolutionary and conservation biology in particular.

With regard to answer 2, such that it applies, it applies to many (most?) socio-economically deprived individuals, irrespective of ‘racial’ categorization. Indeed, had Nattrass obtained accurate information on the socio-economic status of those surveyed, she might have partitioned them by that ‘variable’ and not ‘race’.

With regard to answer 3, despite the availability of masses of potentially relevant race-based demographic data in UCT’s Science Faculty Office, biology departments and its centralized administration, there have been no peer-reviewed studies (or even organized `data) of Science Faculty students [especially applicants to and participants within UCT’s CB Course], with or without ‘racial’ partitioning, reflecting their values, aspirations, ‘experience’ with pets, ‘attitudes’ toward wildlife and/or conservation and relative preference for molecular vs organismal vs conservation biology. Black South Africans may be under-represented in second and third-year Biological Science courses and beyond. But, are they ‘more unrepresented’ than in other Science departments, especially the ‘other’ biology departments – Biochemistry and Molecular & Cell Biology – which could be used as potential ‘control groups’?

With regard to the CB Course – in brief – in 1990, the structure and curriculum of the CB Course was designed by me, Dr Ian Macdonald and other South African biologists who:

  1. talked with a range of other UCT academics and students about their personal views on and experience with ‘conservation’;
  2. assessed existing post-graduate programs in conservation education, nationally and internationally, and
  3. investigated the local job market for conservation biologists.

From 1992, student recruitment focused on applicants with diverse ‘racial’, academic and experiential backgrounds who had a passion for the theory and practice of conservation biology as well as a solid academic background and/or an entrepreneurial bent. In the spirit of meaningful affirmative action, no qualified black South African applicant has ever been refused admission to the CB Course.

In 2006, a workshop was held to assess the CB Course. A broad range of eminent conservation educators and practitioners and CB graduates revisited its structure and curriculum The key decision was to strengthen the sociological, legal and economics elements of the CB Course at the expense of numeracy and characterization of biodiversity.

None of these potentially pivotal events in UCT’s CB history, relevant publications and valuable sources of information are mentioned/referenced, let alone accessed, in the Commentary or Defence. Therefore, the only substantive evidence underpinning the Commentary is its questionable, controversial, newly generated survey-research database.

Third, Nattrass states – 55 times in the Commentary and Defence – that she only conducted “exploratory research”, and that ‘An exploratory analysis’ was even a subtitle in the submitted manuscript that “unfortunate[ly] got dropped during production”. Nattrass explains that she and a small team of social science [no biology?] students – black and white – “workshopped” the Commentary “quirky [by] nature” survey questionnaire through informal discussions with students [from which departments?]. Then it and her proposed sampling and analytical strategy were approved by UCT’s Commerce [not Science and Humanities] Faculty’s Ethics Committee.

The Commentary does not qualify well as exploratory research.

It is based on an unclear and arguably unjustifiable “pressing question” – not an existing phenomenon. Instead, Nattrass refers to discussions with unnamed “colleagues in Biological Sciences” that indicate “despite more than 20 years of discussing the failure to transform biological sciences the department as a whole has to date relied solely on discussions within staff and student meetings to try and understand and resolve the problem, evidently with very limited success.” However, there is available – but un-consulted – prior, relevant archived information.

It is confirmatory and firmly grounded on one existing theory – Materialism, but does not clearly exclude other answers/hypotheses, even those outlined in the Commentary.

Furthermore, in the Defence, Nattrass seems to be unwilling to change her mind and research direction: “I defend my explicitly exploratory research, showing that the research design was in line with standards for such research and was rooted in well-established existing literatures.” and is “acceptable social science”.

Inter alia, in the Defence, Nattrass also maintains that exploratory research “was not designed to produce scientific research output and was based on a limited and non-generalisable sample”. It employs a wide range of contentious and ‘messy’, ‘fumbling and fiddling’ methods that produce ‘tentative’ conclusions and was “not designed to be published”. It was formulated “to collect data on various aspects of living with wildlife at UCT and on student preferences and attitudes pertaining to study and career choices relevant to conservation.

Then why rush to publish the Commentary as an unreviewed scientifically and sociologically ‘meaningful’ product in South Africa’s premier scientific journal?

Fourth, the Commentary is not a commentary sensu the SAJS). It is not an opinion piece discussing, debating and critiquing the merits and deficiencies of views based on peer-reviewed published research by identified authors. It does not address “views regarding scientific challenges or opportunities that have arisen out of [peer-reviewed?] research experiences” with the goal to “promote discussion, debate and critique on topical matters relating to science in South Africa”. The current SAJS Editor in Chief published Nattrass’ piece because it “summarised results” of a research project that has “direct policy implications” and/or “immediate social value”.

The Commentary was only ‘reviewed’ by SAJS’s Editor-in-Chief, an environmental socio-historian. Her Associate Editor for Organismal Biology is conservation biologist Prof. Bettine van Vuuren (HoD Department of Zoology University of Johannesburg and past-president of the Zoological Society of Southern Africa – ZSSA) was not consulted. Indeed, she [with acclaimed ecophysiologist Dr Nomakwezi Mzilikazi –  current ZSSA president and Director of Research Support and Management at the Nelson Mandela University] is a co-author of one of the most highly critical commentaries on the Commentary in the SAJS Special Issue! Also, given the post-Commentary-publication comments by the Dean of Science and HoD of Biological Sciences, the Commentary appears to have not to have been reviewed by the Faculty of Science or by the iCWild Advisory Board on which both of these academics serve. Within UCT, the Commentary research findings were only presented at a review of the iCWild. The Dean of Science and the head of the Department of Biological Sciences serve ex officio on the review panel but neither attended the review meeting. There were apparently no negative comments on “pretty much what was published in the SAJS Commentary” at this meeting, and the unnamed external panel members suggested that she publish her results. This appears to be the extent to which UCT ‘sanctioned’ Nattrass’ research and its submission as a scientific Commentary to the SAJS.

Nattrass ‘scarily’ summarizes her position in the Defence: “Yet, the data were analysed and published because the information is clearly of interest and better than nothing when it comes to informing policy making.” “Social scientists are much more comfortable working with data sets that are far from perfectly random or representative.” “In reality, social scientists typically make do with imperfectly realised samples and then have to consider how to interpret our findings. Sometimes it is better to drive a jalopy and be honest about it.”

Colleagues at a world-class university, might join ‘Janis Joplin‘ and plead: “Oh lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz!”

Fifth, a study purporting to explain, why racially partitioned groups of students are shunning biology/conservation biology should take cognizance that Biology encompasses many, quite distinct, traditional fields, each of which consists of multiple subfields: Biochemistry, Cellular biology, Microbiology, Genetics, Ontogenetics, Anatomy/ Morphology, Physiology, Ethology/Sociobiology/Behavioural Ecology, Population Biology, Evolutionary biology/Systematics (taxonomy, phylogeny and biogeography) and Palaeobiology.

With regard to conservation biology, instead of using modern terms like landscape conservation or conservation science, Nattrass refers to it 105 times in the Commentary and Defence as just “conservation” or as the long-outdated “wildlife conservation” – protecting wild species and their habitats in order to prevent species from going extinct. Shedefines’ conservation biology succinctly and inadequately: “a multi-disciplinary field with one foot in zoology (the study of animals) and the other in social science (the study of humans)”.

Sixth, there are ways forward. For example, since the last CB-Course-focused ‘symposium’ run by UCT was nearly 15 years ago. Perhaps a new one could get input from graduates pre- and post-2006 to assess the efficacy of ‘socializing’ the CB Course ‘course’ and chose its path for the future. In a 23-page version of this piece [sent to Nattrass, UCT’s VC and DVCs, the BAC, the SAJS, etc.], I provide a long list of potential participants. Such a meeting could also act as a springboard to think about how Biological Sciences should adapt, e.g. to produce high school teachers who could help to resurrect high school biology education.

In summary, I submit that Nattrass’ Commentary [even buttressed by the Defence] is fatally flawed scientifically from its conception to completion to publication. It does not validate, let alone answer, the misleading/speculative assumptions and question posed in its title, let alone explain if/why “black” students “are less likely to consider studying biological sciences” at UCT. It does not even lay a foundation for further research. Black, indeed all, UCT students are individual human beings, not red/green-divide cultural tribes, ‘averages’ or data points subject to a regression analysis. Being a ‘black’/‘brown’/‘yellow’/‘white’ South African’ is not a “variable” that can be “controlled” for, let alone “dropped”. Don’t just “explore patterns and connections in the data” and “average marginal effects” “using [statistical] techniques”. If there is a need to investigate a ‘pressing problem’, deal directly with the interested and affected parties, ask them searching – not “standardised” – questions and listen to their answers and not be guided solely by ‘statistical significance’. Even when ‘significant’, correlation does not demonstrate causation.

For example, the first academic choice of iconic, black, anti-apartheid activist Archie Mafeje was Zoology. Perhaps he ‘shunned’ it to pursue a more ‘lucrative’ field of study – Social Anthropology.

This just adds to UCT’s mis-represented history.

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Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.