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?”
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