DebateDiversity: There’s a lot to learn from nature

Diversity: There’s a lot to learn from nature

Reading time: 2:30 | There are a few misconceptions to be found when talking about diversity. Busting them helps to understand what diversity could mean for our society.

1. An ostensible diverse number of species equals a good diversity. That’s wrong. Only because there are many different antelopes and a lot of other peaceful mammals around a water hole doesn’t mean all is ok, although it looks so Walt Disney. At some point, the antelopes will have grazed the steppe to death and starve off because no lion has been pushing them around. Diversity doesn’t mean many. It means the right amount of everything. What everything means depends on the particular habitat.

2. Diversity is the absence of bias. That’s wrong too. There are many antelopes and only a few lions. The bias of the African steppe is obviously tilted towards the antelopes—which is perfectly fine.

3. Diversity is not an ideology one can own, nor is it an idea of something. That’s right, of course. Diversity is a factual, scientific term used in biology and a vital part of understanding habitats and evolution.

4. Diversity is a discourse between species. In a way, that’s right if one understands discourse as an exchange of the species’ needs. The environment dictates that discourse. If the environment gets too dry, the antelopes lose food and become weak. At first, the lions will have more successful hunts but, in the end, will die from hunger because the Antelopes are gone. All lose.

5. Diversity is the core of life and in flux. Yes, that’s true as environments change. In the Anthropocene we live in, environments are altered by us humans. Currently, the flux of diversity is heading to a significant loss of species. Thus, the Anthropocene is also called the age of extinction. Not good.

6. Diversity is built upon competition. That’s only true if we understand evolution as a state of constant competition, which it’s not because competition needs winners. If the lions were to kill off all the antelopes, they would be winners but very soon hungry and doomed losers. Diversity is built upon the balance, so is evolution. That’s what capitalism notoriously gets wrong with Darwin.

7. Diversity is like gas in chemistry: species will occupy all the space available. That’s an excellent way to describe the power of diversity. Every liveable, little room left in the habitat will be occupied by someone specialised in that particular space. And if no species are fitting that particular space over time, evolution will create someone, as it did with us, the humans. By the way, our species survival in the past was at times a pretty tight squeeze. Nature is not a friendly, loving goddess caring for her pets. Nature is the universe’s driving force—quite a thing you want to avoid messing with.

8. Diversity is the answer to healthy environments. That’s true, of course. And, what’s more, measuring diversity gives us a clue about the state of specific environments. As a rule of thumb, the higher the diversity, the healthier is the habitats. From that perspective, German cities are healthier than German farmlands. Go figure. Don’t let the plant’s green colour fool you. Count the species.

9. Diversity secures our food and mitigates emigration. Yes, a high diversity of plants makes it harder for an invasive species to capture an environment such as crops in a field. Moreover, biodiversity prevents diseases from causing havoc on our fields. And lastly, a higher diversity in crops helps to secure the food supply. Ireland’s infamous famine caused by blight on potatoes in 1848 was directly caused by a loss of crop diversity. One million people died of hunger, and two million Irish left the country.

10. Left alone, nature brings back diversity automatically. That’s wrong. At least if we think in human-conceivable lapses of time. Despite habitats in the UK find similar counterparts on the continent, there’s a delta in biodiversity between the British Isles and continental Europe. However, not all lost diversity on UK soil will be coming back with a snap of a finger when habitats are restored. But reintroducing extinct species in the UK literally by hand does the job.

11. For over 500 million years, diversity in species is constantly on an impressive rise. True, but there were two slumps. The most famous one was 66 million years ago, when a giant meteor hit the earth. Subsequently, the climate changed in such an unfavourable way that it killed T. rex, Brontosaurus and all the other big guns of the Cretaceous age. Some dinosaurs, however, survived the hit and live today as tits and robins in my garden. But much worse was the mass extinction roughly 252 million years ago, when the rise of carbon dioxide altered habitats so severely that over half of the species went extinct, including most insects. Let’s not do that again.