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Trevor Goward, lichens, and what’s wrong about how we do science

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Trevor Goward

Trevor Goward is a BC scientist who has set the world of of lichen science on its head: his insights led to the discovery (by Toby Spribille) 0f the presence of a third species, a yeast, in the alga-fungus symbiotic organism.  Like all scientific discoveries, this one is pretty cool, but it’s how it came about and what that says about science, ecology, and our ability to understand our planet that is the fascinating story.  Goward is largely self-taught, like the better-known maverick mycologist Paul Stamets.

I learned the story from the June 2017 issue of Scientific American.  It is paywalled; go to your library or buy the magazine, as it is a story well worth reading in its entirety.  Meanwhile, here are a few nuggets below.

Author Erica Gies, a Victoria, BC based science writer, introduces Goward:

Goward…seems more mountain man than scientist, a naturalist in the tradition of Charles Darwin or Henry David Thoreau. Goward’s scientific love is lichens—those growths that look like little mosses or colored crusts stuck to trees and rocks everywhere. He is inseparable from this place, where he has spent most of his adult life after growing up in a city south of the park. Now 64, he rarely leaves. “It has become my center of spiritual gravity,” he tells me. It’s not hard to see why. Most of the park has no road access and is rarely seen by humans. Wells Gray’s 1.3 million acres were formed by volcanoes and glaciers; its river valleys, sheer rock mountains, alpine meadows and waterfall spray zones foster rich biodiversity. His careful attention to this one place, like conservationist Aldo Leopold’s beloved Sauk County, Wisconsin, allows him to see connections that others might miss.

And yet Trevor Goward is a maverick in the scientific world. His radical thought experiments about lichens, published in 12 provocative essays, available on his Website, Ways of Enlichenment, have been both ridiculed and lauded—but largely ignored by most researchers because he holds no scientific degrees and because many of his ideas are not supported by rigorous data. Still, Goward’s astute observations and deep thinking follow in the footsteps of Darwin’s and Thoreau’s approaches—which, much more than laboratory science, formed the basis of the theories of evolution and ecology.

He says he can learn from [his dog] Purple’s way of seeing. That may seem eccentric, but Goward respects First Nations peoples’ ways of knowing, and learning from animals is a storied human tradition.

Science’s reductionist focus has made it nearly impossible to fully understand symbiosis, [University of Alberta lichenologist Toby] Spribille says. “Ecology was supposed to be the science of natural process and synthesis, but its backbone is severely strained under the mathematics of individuality.”

In July 2016 Spribille and his co-authors took a major step forward in that understanding. Their big reveal in Science: many lichens have a second fungus in the house.

Gowan and Spribille found that two species of Bryoria lichens, one eaten as traditional food but the other toxic, are actually the same species: same fungus and alga combination. But both were found to contain a third symbiotic partner, a yeast; the one lichen that contains much more of the yeast than the other is the toxic one.  The Bryoria discovery led to the identification of a yeast partner in 52 other genera of lichens.

Elders use clues such as location, color and the types of neighboring lichens to tell them apart. When Stuart Crawford, a friend of Goward’s with a degree in ethnobotany, showed bundles of the two lichens to an elder and conservationist from the Neskonlith band, the late Mary Thomas, she correctly identified the edible one every time.

Local people’s wisdom does not always jibe with scientific explanations, Crawford says, but the result, based on observation, is correct. The locals told Crawford that they wait for B. fremontii to “ripen” on the tree. In fact, lichens do not ripen as do fruits and vegetables, but the darker color and its growth pattern on trees help the people distinguish it from its poisonous twin.

Aside from pointing out the value of traditional environmental knowledge, Gies also discusses what is wrong with our current way of managing science.  She mentions biologists who never set foot outdoors and could not name any of the species around them, as a way to illustrate the problems of funded reductionist science which considers basic description and taxonomy quaint.  She also describes what some call the ivory-fortress mentality, that is, the hostility to new ideas.  In particular:

…worrisome to Spribille is that his own students are petrified of being wrong, a psychological state incompatible with breakthroughs. For a counterexample, he points to Goward. In the case of Bryoria, Goward surmised that a third partner was present, although he incorrectly thought it was a bacterium. But being correct “is not the criterion of a brilliant mind,” Spribille says. Rather, brilliant minds are characterized by indefatigable curiosity and questioning, traits Spribille tries to encourage in his students.

Goward has turned this ethic into a way of life. His house has running water for a shower and sinks but no toilet. Goward says they appreciate being forced to go outside every day, even in the depths of winter. On trips to the loo he has seen the Northern Lights and passing moose. When I jokingly whimper about getting wet or cold or chomped by summer mosquitoes, or even stalked by the cougar that recently swiped a neighbor’s pigs, Goward is unapologetic: “That’s real. Life isn’t always comfortable.”

A few final quotes that have stayed with me:

The unit of life may not be an individual but a network, whether among the organisms making up a lichen or the microbes of the human microbiome.

Today [Gowan] sees lichens as a kind of koan. “The lichen by its very nature exists at a portal, a doorway,” he says. “If you look in one direction, it’s an organism. If you look in the other direction, it’s an ecosystem.”

“Lichens are my window,” he says, “but it’s the act of looking at the world that’s the interesting thing.” Systems only hold together in the long term if the parts consider themselves integral to the whole and if the whole protects the parts, as lichens do. “That’s what’s going wrong with us,” he says. “As individuals, we’re not concerned with the whole.”

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Written by enviropaul

June 26, 2017 at 4:26 pm