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One year later. Are we still “judging” species?

It has been over a year since biologist Mark Davis and colleagues published the provocative essay “Don’t judge species on their origins” in the journal Nature (Davis et al 2011). Davis and his co-authors argue that the long-held native vs. alien perspective is meaningless.  Six months ago, when I interviewed Davis for an issue of Leaf Litter,  it seemed as though his call for folks to stop vilifying non-native species was being hotly debated everywhere I turned–in our office, at conferences, on blogs, etc.

Since then, the water cooler arguments seem to have subsided around here. Perhaps we’ve all just agreed to disagree. I still don’t know where I stand on this issue, and I still can’t stop thinking about that interview.

I am one of Biohabitats’ few non-scientists. I’m a writer. So I’m fully aware of the power of words and the emotions they evoke. Funny, though. Until I chatted with Davis, I hadn’t thought about  the way language (“invasive,” “alien”) and emotion (fear, nostalgia) helped frame the field of invasion biology and how, according to Davis, that framework has influenced conservation for the last several decades.  And I wonder…if I agree with Davis about the impact of this use of incendiary language to describe species that now exist somewhere they hadn’t before, does that mean I agree with some of the other bold statements he made during our interview?

“Valuing diversity is a human, anthropogenic perspective. Nature doesn’t care if it’s diverse or not….There is no such thing as a healthy ecosystem or an unhealthy ecosystem. That’s another example of cloaking values in pseudo-scientific language. An ecosystem is just an ecosystem… When someone refers to a healthy ecosystem, what they’re really saying is, ‘That’s the way I want the ecosystem to be.’ That’s fine, but that’s how we should state it. We shouldn’t pretend that we’re doctors making ecosystems healthy again. Ecosystems don’t care what they are.”

How will we define “native” in 30 years? Or will we, as Davis predicts, no longer have this debate because the people who steadfastly stick with the notion that non-native = bad will eventually “die off?”


  1. Suzanne says:

    It’s funny. . . we are all about protecting ecosystems, keeping invasives out. However, when you look at it, we are not native to many of the ecosystems we live in. Maybe we should all move back to where our ancestors came from? Unfortunately for some, that would present quite a problem. Including me.

  2. Chris Streb says:

    Interesting, but how does he know that nature doesn’t care? She seems to be getting pretty angry with all this heat and devastating storms. She’s trying to drown us humans in the bathtub apparently as the seas rise as well.

    The reality is, observing a great extinction is not good, regardless if nature cares or not. Biodiversity is beautiful and inspiring. In it, there is wonder and a profound sense of awe as we witness the ancient continuity of living matter as it has evolved to this point in time, into forms, colors and patterns that are the foundations of art and meaning. But biodiversity is also vital for survival. It is the foundation to the life support systems on which all species depend. With less of it, the system as a whole is less able to deal with perturbations and stress. Isn’t resilience the very meaning of health?

    More times than not, people can feel when they are in a healthy ecosystem without an intellect like Davis telling them they are fools. And I’d rather be in a virgin hemlock forest (happy) than in the aftermath of adelgids (sad). Even if the system doesn’t care, why can’t we? We need it.

  3. Megan Dixon says:

    Chris – I had the same thought, “how does he know that nature doesn’t care?”.

    There is an undeniable difference in the feeling of a place teeming with biodiversity, compared to a monocrop farm field, compared to a highly disturbed site with little to no vegetation. And for me, a place teeming with biodiversity feels more alive, filled with energy and vitality. Whether or not that is good or bad for nature, these tend to be my favorite places on Earth.

    At the same time, I really resonate with the notion of debunking the native/not-native myth. It’s time to stop making decisions with these arbitrary and inappropriate distinctions and start looking to nature to see what works.

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