Oh, dear

The context of this graph isn’t entirely clear, but it’s from Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra of UC Davis, and it’s from a poll of 800 first year students, so I presume it’s the results of a survey of their incoming class?


Maybe one of the things we need to do as part of popularizing science to the general public is to emphasize the diversity of life, and talk more about the cool things plants and bacteria and fungi and so forth do. I know I started out as a zoologist, am still mostly focused on animal development, but over the years I’ve become increasingly aware that there are amazing contrasts to be studied. We might wish we could study aliens from Mars, but every time I look at plant development, for instance, I feel like I’m examining extraterrestrials already.


  1. Pteryxx says

    I didn’t know what prokaryotes *were* until after entering college. We need more TV shows on what plants and fungi and… those other tiny things do. Animals are just easier to film.

  2. says

    I thinks it’s just more indicative of a ‘starting point’…First year is too soon for most students to even know enough about the basics to have a preference one way or the other

  3. carlie says

    And yeah, I’d be really interested in the percentages at the sophomore level. But that really doesn’t speak well for high school prep in giving a nice survey of how awesome everything is.

  4. says

    Too much emphasis on specific groups of any kind rather than teaching about patterns and processes of evolution and ecology in general is part of the problem. In our recruiting events most of our prospects say they want “marine biology,” and by that they think it’s all whales and dolphins.

  5. dkmuldoon says

    UCD (my alma mater!) also has huge programs in Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine, which may draw more of the students interested in animals. I wonder if that graph might be a little less extreme at another university.

  6. otranreg says

    Isn’t this pretty much the percentage of the air time given to the different kingdoms in popular nature programmes?

  7. MadHatter says

    @9 dkmuldoon that was my first thought too. I also went to a U. that was big in Animal Science and Vet Med (with the intention of being a vet) and I think we’d see a very similar answer. I certainly would’ve answered that even though I thought prokaryotes were pretty interesting.

  8. doublereed says

    Well they’re first year so maybe they don’t know about all the cool stuff plants and fungi do. Once they do, they’re more interested in those things.

  9. grumpy says

    “…every time I look at plant development, for instance, I feel like I’m examining extraterrestrials already.”

    Surely the plants, looking back at you, feel the same way.

  10. monad says

    To be fair, animals make up a vast majority of described species. If I thought that 90% was all inordinate fondness for beetles, ants, and other insects, I could accept it.

  11. Becca Stareyes says

    Aw, there isn’t a ‘everything’ answer.

    (I also wonder how many students are pre-med or pre-vet, which means animals are a good focus. (But, then again, so are protists, fungi and prokaryotes, given how they interact with animals.))

    I was also interested in marine biology as a kid, but enough to also want to learn about tidepools and coral reefs and how the animals that made the shells I found on the beach made their living. Still mostly animals, but I understood that it wasn’t all dolphins and whales, but also worms and squishy things and squid.

  12. grignon says

    As my son left to begin his freshman year studying biology, I pulled him aside like Mr Mcguire in The Graduate and said “One word- Bacteria”
    He laughed. But I don’t think he’d seen the film.

  13. frugaltoque says

    Maybe they all thought it meant “romantically interested”, you know, what with all the LGBT groups on their campuses talking about tolerance and stuff.

  14. nomadiq says

    The problem is two-fold. Firstly, most high school students don’t get any exposure at all to anything beyond plants and animals. The reason why leads into the second problem. The prokaryotes, protists and fungi are only interesting once you have gained a certain level of understanding in the sciences. Very, very few 16 -18 year olds have the necessary understanding of the links between physics, chemistry and biology that make prokaryotic and small eukaryotic communities so interesting.

    Quorum sensing, antibiotic production, biofilm formation and destruction… You can’t just simply explain these things. But you can show pictures of giraffes with long legs and individual patterning of their skin and get a great WOW! response from anyone. If I told the same people that the soil under the feet of giraffes had a lot more going on (and a lot more unanswered questions) than the giraffes themselves I’d be laughed at. Isn’t soil just lifeless muck? Ummm, no. Come to think of it I’d guess about 75% of cancer researchers would say the same about the soil in their yard versus the cancer cells in their incubators.

  15. johnharshman says

    There are a few obvious points. Protists and prokaryotes are hard to see because they’re small. Fungi are mostly living their lives under ground where they’re equally hard to see. And plants, while you can see them, do their stuff in slow motion. Animals, on the other hand, tend to do interesting things while you watch.

    And of course there’s the fact that we tend to be more interested in our close relatives than in our more distant ones. Among animals, we even like those whose relationships are closest and whose sensory equipment are most like ours. That’s why there are so many primatologists and ornithologists. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  16. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @MichaelD (and chigau)

    And I feel pretty confident that most of animals is actually vertebrates….

    chigau also seems to believe that the animals most likely to be the self-predicted foci of these students likely copulate while covered in fur with at least one other who is also covered in fur.

    These were my thoughts as well.

    I’d actually like to see “animals” broken down by:
    1. Land vertebrates and their descendants, but excluding all primarily parasitic organisms.
    2. Air-breathing invertebrates, including all those whose adult forms breathe air even if larval or nymph stages do not, but excluding all parasites.
    2a. Members of 2 who are also arthropods
    2b. Members of 2 who are not arthropods
    3. Water breathing vertebrates and any air-breathing vertebrates not descended from land vertebrates, but excluding all primarily parasitic organisms.
    4. Water living/breathing arthropods, but excluding all primarily parasitic organisms.
    5. Water living/breathing invertebrates other than arthropods, but excluding all primarily parasitic organisms.
    6. Primarily parasitic organisms.

    I think you could also get higher rates of non-animal answers if you worded the question differently.

    For instance:

    Of the living things I might study in a biology program, I’m most interested in:

    a) one or more members of the broad class of microscopic life forms that cause nearly all human infectious disease
    b) one or more microscopic organisms that live in symbiosis with humans
    c) one or more microscopic organisms that live in contact with humans yet generate little to no harm or help to humans, and gaining little to nothing from that contact
    d) one or more microscopic organisms that live in environments isolated from human contact
    e) some other form of life.

  17. Brony says

    One of the graduate students that I worked with had a name for people that had a knee-jerk disinterest in plant-sciences, “plantist”. That’s probably a bit of an insensitive spin on racist, but in the context it seemed to work well.

  18. Brony says

    @ PZ Myers

    I don’t know about those protists. Protists are really, really strange.

    And they spend all their time in hard to categorize groups! Who knows what they are up to…

  19. Ichthyic says

    I don’t know about those protists. Protists are really, really strange.

    oh, but one SHOULD take an interest in them. I had a friend who was forced to.


    Nightmare of waterways around the world.

    It’s why you should always boil water you get from streams. Really really.

  20. Ichthyic says

    chigau also seems to believe that the animals most likely to be the self-predicted foci of these students likely copulate while covered in fur with at least one other who is also covered in fur.

    so… furries are actually the behavioral norm, and the rest of us are doin it rong?


  21. LicoriceAllsort says

    Plant blindness: We have met the enemy and he is us” uses the word “zoochauvinism”. Great word.

    We do a piss-poor job of educating kids about how cool/amazing/diverse plants are (hello, seed dispersal is one of my favorite topics!). I can’t find the paper but read an analysis of elementary-level textbooks that showed that only 15% of pictures in the book were of plants. (Surprise, most pics were of animals and, of those, most were charismatic megafauna.) Even among plant scientists we talk about what a bad job we do at communicating plant science. It’s a tough problem that really needs to start at infancy, when babies are getting stuffed giraffes and reading books about tigers.

  22. Ichthyic says

    ^^ 100% agree. I took a course in Botany as an undergrad, and it really opened my watery eyes.

    electron micrographs of plant sperm. no wonder people get allergies.


    Plant life cycles are bloody fascinating though. Seeing the sexual stage of giant kelp is barely visible, compared to the sporophyte stage with can be 200 feet long! Watching sexual reproduction and meiosis occurring in entirely separate organisms. fun stuff.

  23. johnharshman says

    I could recommend a book: The Tree of Life, just published by Sinauer. I have a number of problems with the book, but at least it offers a less biased look at the tree than we usually see. Yes, it gives as much space to Mammalia as to Eubacteria, but some of that is a function of our current biased state of knowledge. It does attempt to cover all of life. There are 2 chapters on single-celled eukaryotes, 9 chapters on plants, just one on fungi, and 29 on metazoans. Could be worse. Is there a less animal-biased survey of all life out there?

  24. martincohen says

    They left out the following possible answers:




    P.Z.’s autograph.

  25. sugarfrosted says

    During my freshman year I took a class entitled “the biology of organisms.” Essentially it was a light overview of different organisms in order to fulfill a biology requirement. I remember there were a bunch of people complaining that we talked about things other than plants, animals and bacteria. Archea didn’t even get love from them. :'(

    Additionally, isn’t protist an old term that’s no longer used in any real sense anymore and was just a junk category just to throw things that don’t fit in the major kingdoms. What are you biologist saying all protists look alike? That’s Kindomist.

  26. bortedwards says

    a very non-scientific anecdotal survey of my postgrad biology cohort found that a disturbing *majority* had never spent a night in a tent, in the field. They could not fathom how I was most happy pushing through undergrowth or trotting around enjoying the heat haze rise off the plains. I couldn’t fathom how they had become biologists in the first place.
    I think a large proportion of them were the “I love dolphins” wannabe marine biologists, who I subsequently consider more on a branch of the social sciences: sitting around chatting about how cute their behavior is.

  27. David Marjanović says

    We might wish we could study aliens from Mars, but every time I look at plant development, for instance, I feel like I’m examining extraterrestrials already.

    No need to even go so far. One word: Tantulocarida.

  28. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @martincohen, #32:

    P.Z.’s autograph.

    What if I’m only interested in PZ’s autograph because of the sex, money, and fame I’ll gain by possessing it?

  29. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @David Majanovi
    so, of course, I look the things up & realize that I had read a bit about them before, but somehow hadn’t remembered (or perhaps never knew) the following:

    The tantulocarid life cycle is unique. It does not follow the usual moulting cycle of all crustaceans; instead, the mature adult actually develops within an attached parasitic tantulus larva.


    Alien indeed.

  30. says

    Kind of like they way people think of life in deeper time than history or the last glacial period as being dinosaurs. Booooorrriiing. (Not boring in themselves, but because whole cultures seem to have one-track minds when it comes to… well, anything.)