The Bigger Picture

I had the great privilege of being mentored in my field - weed ecology - from Clarence Swanton at the University of Guelph. I did my postdoc with him from 1991-1994 and then returned for my first sabbatical 7 years later. Clarence has a gift for seeing "the big picture" which is very valuable in taking science beyond the lab bench into the real world.

When I was again at Guelph in 2000-2001, I worked with Clarence's postdoc Anil Shrestha who shared Clarence's love for the big picture. But it was almost too much one day when Anil said that Clarence had proclaimed that there was a still "bigger picture." Had Clarence finally gone too far?

Many scientists would say "yes." They refine their studies in ever diminishing concentric circles to become absolute experts on the minute details. The little picture is clear enough, they might argue.

Jared Diamond is an ecologist who has refused to be bound by a narrow field of study. I picked up his Pulitzer prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies this Christmas holiday, and was greatly inspired at how he was able to utilize his field (my field) of ecology to analyze the history of human societies.

As Diamond visited New Guinea conducting his research on bird ecology over many years, he developed a unique lens with which to view world history. He used this lens to help develop a big picture of how dependent societies are on their natural resources - how specific places and environments matter to the trajectory of history.

As an ecologist myself, Diamond's observations and conclusions make a lot of sense. As a Christian ecologist, I can't help but try to see an even bigger picture. I love the simple yet profound truth in Acts 17:26 "From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live." Overlay this truth on Diamond's book and the picture is big enough to burst the frame!

What particular lens have you been gifted with to see the world? As you point this lens forward in 2009, what do you see? I see more weeds coming, but I also see hope.

Last updated Jan. 8th, 2009 at 10:31am by David Clements