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Desert Diary


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The day when a person's knowledge could encompass all areas of natural history is far gone. The present is, by necessity, an age of specialization. There is just too much known for everything to be intellectually absorbed. A serious side effect, however, is the tendency to overspecialize at the expense of more general knowledge—a failure to see the forest because the focus is on a single tree, so to speak. Or, to use some scientific jargon, the failure to detect emergent properties because of the focus on reductionism. To translate, concentrating on taking things down to their most basic qualities may leave larger systems ignored.

We cannot understand even the most elementary features of our Chihuahuan Desert, regardless of how much we study individual desert animals and plants, unless we can see how they interact. The desert is far more than the sum of its living things. The ecosystem—the emergent property that is the desert—will never be understood until we synthesize knowledge of individual organisms to their relationships with each other and with the physical environment.
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Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Chihuahuan Desert at El Paso

The Chihuahuan Desert in northeastern El Paso, TX. Mexican Poppies are in the foreground, the Franklin Mountains on the skyline. Photograph by A.H. Harris.