Complexity and Resilience: A Biodiversity Manifesto

BY Jillian McCall

Biodiversity: An essential pillar of planetary function, human well-being, and the resilience of Life

Although Carl von Linneus established his “Linnean” taxonomic classification of species in the 1700s, providing a framework for analyzing biodiversity, the concept of “biological diversity” was not developed until Ray Dasmann, nature conservationist of the 20th century, published his 1968 conservationist plea, A Different Kind of Country. The contraction “biodiversity” was then first coined by Walter Rosen in 1985 and used again by E. O. Wilson in his seminal book Biodiversity (1988). But why, today, is biodiversity such an important concept?

1. Biodiversity’s essential economic value

Nature in its most biodiverse forms offers a panoply of nutritional and medicinal resources. Fungi isolated from sloth hair fight bacteria, parasites – and cancer. To date, “80% of registered medicines come from plants, or have been inspired by natural products,” according to the Earlham Institute. Ultimately, destroying biodiversity could cost the world up to $2.7 trillion a year.

2. The cultural and spiritual richness of a biodiverse Nature

Many cultures consider Nature itself as an extension of society – and sensitive stewardship an integral part of existence. Biodiversity as such is core to our nature-based sources of recreation and well-being. It improves our general health, direction-attention abilities, self-reported happiness, state of relaxation, and sense of fascination.

3. Biodiversity’s’ critical biogeochemical roles

Biodiversity is essential to broad global nutrient cycles, and its destruction slows the cycling of carbon and nitrogen, even across drastically different ecosystems ranging from the subarctic to the tropics. In parallel, biodiverse ecosystems enable climate regulation: Terrestrial and marine ecosystems alone absorb roughly half of anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

4. Biodiversity, a reflection of the emergence of Life

Far more fundamentally however, biodiversity underpins the very emergence of Life within the dynamic, self-organizing, complex system that is Earth. Life has emerged through an evolutionary dance of trial-and-error, and the greater the diversity of life forms, the more specific and evolved the selection thereof. Biodiversity thus reflects the process by which complex life has emerged.

5. Biodiversity within a species, critical to a healthy genetic architecture

Biodiversity – as reflected in the genetic heterogeneity within a species – is critical to a species’ healthy genetic architecture. Conversely, the genetic impoverishment of a species through its isolation is particularly destructive. This is precisely what happened to the last woolly mammoths. Confined to Alaska’s Wrangel island 6,000 years ago in part due to human overhunting, this population of just a few hundred was highly inbred. This resulted in the accumulation of normally evolutionarily purged deleterious mutations, manifesting as diminished olfaction and male fertility – eventually leading to their extinction.

6. Biodiversity across species, key to Life’s resilience

Resilience (from 17th century Latin, to jump back) functionally reflects the ability of a system to react to perturbations by either absorbing the disturbance or reorganizing itself to maintain its functions. Biodiversity – as reflected in the genetic heterogeneity across species – means that the web of life can better absorb or adapt to pressures. When crops are too genetically homogeneous, they are easily wiped out by parasites and pathogens. Today, obtaining most of our nutritional input from a mere 12 different species of crops makes us vulnerable to the type of destruction which characterized the 19th-century potato famine in Ireland or the near eradication of the Gros Michel banana by Panama disease in the 1950s.

Biodiversity: A core pillar under threat of imminent collapse

An estimated 1.5 million species have been identified by taxonomists – billions including bacteria and viruses. (A single teaspoon of soil alone harbors up to 50,000 different bacterial strains.) And even within any one species, diversity still abounds – 36% of bird subspecies may actually be considered entirely separate species.

Today however, 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction – including a third of marine mammals and corals and 40% of amphibians. Meanwhile, the abundance of native species in most land-based habitats has plummeted by 20% since 1900.

Protecting Life through preserving biodiversity – A foundational strategy

Two young fish are swimming along when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”. The two young fish swim on for a bit, after which one of them eventually looks over at the other and asks, “What is water?”- David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

Life relies at a fundamental level on multiscalar biodiversity to emerge and persist healthily into the future. Biodiversity preservation – through species conservation, de-extinction, and extension – is not just an insurance policy on Life, but essential to protecting it in its most beautiful, thriving, polychromatic form – maintaining the core fabric of the genetic systems we are born from and seek to continue to thrive within. Biodiversity is the very water we swim in – foundational to resilient, complex life.


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