Lake Victoria, sitting just below the equator in eastern Africa, shared between the countries of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania is the second largest freshwater lake in the world. To put that into
perspective, at 68,800 square kilometers, Lake Victoria is larger than the country of Switzerland (41,285 sq. km.). Beyond its immense size and grandeur, it is also one of the most important sites on earth for our current understanding of evolution because of one rapidly-diversifying group of fishes: the cichlids, which include both tilapia, an important food source, and aquarium fish such as angelfish.
The cichlids in Lake Victoria are especially interesting because that body of water dried out and refilled less than 15,000 years ago. This may seem like a long time, but on a geologic and evolutionary timescale, that’s less than the blink of an eye. Consider that before 1980, itwas estimated that there were over 500 species of cichlids in Lake Victoria. To contrast that with our own timeframe, the speciation time from our last common ancestor with chimps was on the order of millions of years ago. The fish in this lake are evolving at record speeds.
Today, the populations of cichlids in Lake Victoria have plummeted and many species are either endangered or extinct. The extinction was due to environmental pressures and invasive species such as the nile perch, a large predator game fish with an appetite for a group of small cichlid fish known as Haplochromis. Like many invasive species, the introduction of the nile perch was no accident. It was introduced to stem the overfishing of tilapia in the 1920s. This worked, but at the price of hundreds of species of Haplochromis. Now that the biodiversity in the lake is reduced, there are efforts to protect these species that are informed by scientific inquiry, but who gets a say in how management decisions are made? How did the focus of inquisition change over the past hundred years?
Our guest, Matt McConnell, is trying to answer these questions and trying to understand how communication between scientists and non-scientists affect how science is done. As a Masters Student in the History of Science department or Oregon State University, he is digging through the archives, trying to understand the changing scientific values surrounding Lake Victoria in the 20th century. Is the lake important as a resource or as a haven for species? Why should we care? Our current notion of science is that it is objective, but as we look into its history, science is value-driven, which is culturally laden; the question is, who’s culture is asking the questions and who’s culture is affected? In our current time, we are hearing about resource management and those are informed by scientific inquiry. Science is the answer, but it affects farmers and fishermen and their opinions are often denigrated in favor of science. Science is considered an objective measure, but it is really a cultural decision. Practitioners of science not only need to communicate their values, but they need to listen.
Tune in Sunday, July 3rd at 7PM PDT on 88.7FM or live stream to hear Matt talk about his journey with the history of science and science communication.