A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

On ‘Biodiversity’, or 'Are there still tigers in TriBeCa?'.....
With deep apologies to James Thurber

[Copyright©Philip Stott, 2004. This essay is adapted from a previous published version, and it may not be reproduced, either in full or in part, without the author's written permission.]

JAMES GROVER Thurber, quondam humorist of the quirky The New Yorker magazine, loathed neologisms. 'Automation' signified the end of civilization, as he knew it. It is therefore distinctly gratifying that he died in 1961, a good quarter-century before a group of earnest scientists in Washington DC coined the word 'biodiversity' for lots of animals and plants. And Thurber thought a great deal about beasts and verbiage, especially dogs, tigers, and the Stepmother's Kiss.

Since 1987, this 'biodiversity' has become as ubiquitous as alligators and crocodiles in the tranquil lakes and ponds of Central Park, although you still have to go to the Bronx Zoo for giraffes and elephants. 'Biodiversity' is breeding daily into a menagerie of the mind quite worthy of Thurber's own Professor Challenger-like protagonist, Dr. Wesley L. Millmoss. 'Biodiversity' inhabits every biologist's computer, migrating and dispersing unchecked from desk to desk, from lab to lab. It even infests the New York Times (although the New York Post has proved remarkably resistant), while in the UK it is positively rampant throughout The Guardian ('An Unnatural Disaster', The Guardian, January 8), in The Indy ('Revealed: how global warming will cause extinction of a million species', The Independent, January 8), and at the BBC ('Climate risk "to million species"', BBC Science/Nature News Online, January 7).

As Dr. Wilfred Ponsonby unkindly quipped in 1929 to a meeting of the American Scientific Society in Baltimore, "The old boy (Dr Millmoss) has never dug up half as many specimens as he has dreamed up." Today, we don't dream them up; we input them, and let them run in order for them to become extinct through 'global warming'.

Virtual Biodiversity

New Millennium 'biodiversity' is, of course, largely 'virtual', as we trek intrepidly around our microchips to discover inside our machines, through mathematical models and modems, unknown flora and fauna (or fauba, as Thurber once had it). Put in a 'tropical rain forest' and you'll notch up a million insects in the canopy at the click of a mouse (an also recently-evolved tabletop sub-species, some of which even inhabit houses). But these are only pixilated shadows, coleopterous and orthopterous statistics, totally beyond human hand or eye - not at all like Thurber's real friend, Gryllus domesticus, the Dickensian house cricket, which listened with its legs and thought humans walked on their ears.

In the 1920s, by sharp contrast, Dr. Millmoss used wire, papier mâché, and similar materials to create his models of the 'Middle Western Bestiary', which included, among many others, the marriage-breaking Mound Dweller of Ohio, the Illinois Thake, and the Spotted, or Ringed, Queech, a lithe pussycat probably left over from the great Plasticine Ice Age. Sadly, all of his models were destroyed by fire in 1930. Today, even more alarmingly, we are told that 40,000 species are going extinct every year, or a million in the next fifty years (take your gloomy pick), but only when you switch off your computer, or they are wiped out by nasty computer viruses (a truly splendid example of new 'biodiversity') bearing unlikely sounding names, such as 'Melissa' and, clearly a hybrid species, 'Bugbear'. 'Automation' really has become the end of the world. Homo sapiens nerdensis is alive and kicking butt.

Yet, all these virtual creepy crawlies and byting beasties 'die' daily without a name, scientific or otherwise. James Thurber would have been distraught; just think of his White-faced Rage next to a Blind Rage, and that unforgettable Hoodwink on a spray of Ragamuffin. As a child, I loved him. Life, and saving the Planet, is simply no fun anymore. There is nothing to make you laugh out raucously like Hackett's Gorm, one of the extinct animals of Bermuda, so perfectly encapsulated by Thurber as "a tailless extravertebrate about whom only one fact has survived the centuries: he was discovered by Mr. and Mrs. W. L. Hackett and their daughter Gloria." These days Gloria, or more likely Madison, would not be exploring Bermuda for lost gorms. She would be staring gormlessly at a flickering screen with lots of numbers and graphs, typing in oodles and oodles of data. "Now tell me, Madison, could you name some of the species that went extinct last year?" "No, I'm sorry, Madison, the NASDAQ doesn't quite count, even in Seattle. Please try again?"

Serious Animals

But enough of this 'biodiversity' banter: what of more serious and solid animals, like the tiger and the panda? Thurber was particularly good on the tiger, which lurks "in motor cars, crouches in sealed envelopes and prowls between the doorbell and the phone, ready to pounce on the dreamer day by day." I am sure, despite our media-driven world of ecogloomsters and ecodoomsters, that this tiger still pads around SoHo and TriBeCa at dusk and dawn amidst the cast iron and the limestone. In fact, I think I spotted, or striped, him (when last in New York) at Bubby's having brunch. You will also comfortingly find him, as Thurber so often reminded us, in gaiter, goiter, and aigret, not to mention in erting (a rare Scottish relative) and begirt. Clearly, every tiger is begirt by another tiger.

Interestingly, Thurber seems to have been much less sure about the giant panda, which he excluded from his 'A Gallery of Real Creatures'; and rightly so, because this true-life Winnie-the-Pooh in designer shades is clearly not a black-and-white issue. Nevertheless, 'biodiversity' has decreed that such bears/raccoons/or just plain ol' pandas (whatever they are!) must survive at all costs. Indeed, pandas are so emblematic that no zoo or Worldwide Fund for Whatever can make any money without one behind bars or on a badge. (I am distraught that Ms Naomi Klein hasn't found time to moan about this corporate branding yet.) Worse still, pandas are foolish enough to live in China. They are thus inexorably doomed, residing on the wrong side of the missile defence shield and the language being so difficult, quite out of character for pandas.

Accordingly, bushwhacked and bamboozled by their own food requirements, and with a total lack of interest in sex, pandas are hardly an advertiser's dream for the dynamics of 'Evolution and Adaptation'. T. H. Huxley would have soon persuaded Charles Darwin to drop the panda as a logo ('no-logo' Ms Klein again) - "Not good for business, old chap!" "Stick to foxes, rats and raccoons. Far less risky and a lot more frisky. Even old Lumbricus [the worm] is better," he would opine. Yet, in the name of the blooming "biodiversity" industry which besmirches newspapers throughout the world, we ship pandas around the globe in airplanes, try to give them artificial insemination, and even make them read 'Play Panda' at bedtimes.

Thus, at the serious risk of creating untoward pandamonium (a very pedantic sic must be inserted here) amongst the young folk visiting touchy-feely zoos (watch out for the E-coli!), why can't we let the panda go extinct with dignity? Animals surely have a right to become extinct? Circa 98.99999... per cent of all animals that have ever lived have done so. It is hardly a radical step; remember all those dinosaurs that thought they saw a bright new star shining in the East! And the benighted panda was on its way out well before we, Homo sapiens oeconomicus, evolved and took over the planet. 'Climate change' (now don't those words ring some 'biodiversity' bells this merry morning?) and biological inertia did for it eons ago. So give a mammal a chance. Honour its innate 'animalness', and let it die out unhindered by human hubris. There is nearly a case for species euthanasia. And, while we are on the subject, why aren't we quite so exercised about saving the pretty smallpox virus and that bacterium I picked up from eating 'natural' food the other day? These are also 'biodiversity', although you wouldn't guess it. Obviously they are the wrong sort of 'biodiversity', and distinctly 'non-U' - quite unlike our friendly, jaw-breaking, panda.

Just So Human

Our whole attitude to 'biodiversity' is just so human. Not very long ago a pelican had the temerity to eat a mallard duck in front of lots of small children at Regents Park in London. The distraught mothers immediately complained to the park attendant that the pelican shouldn't be allowed to do this when their tender offspring were around to witness the event, and most certainly not before the sex and violence TV watershed of 9 p.m. Poor pelican; the bird was simply doing what pelicans do. It is utterly matronising not to allow animals to be, well, animals. And, as children, we all learnt a great deal from rabbits and guinea pigs doing what comes naturally!

So what are we to do with this 'biodiversity', which James Thurber would have clearly hated, and which is the greatest invention since 'global warming' (and even better when combined) for creating ecoscares and ecochondria amongst the shoppers on 5th Avenue and New Bond Street? Personally, if I hear the word again, I'll reach for the pesticide.... But don't despair, 'biodiversity' is all around us, especially in Times Square and Trafalgar Square. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Sylvie and Bruno:

"He thought he saw a Banker's Clerk
Descending from the bus:
He looked again, and found it was
A Hippopotamus."

By the way, the climate warming at the end of the Younger Dryas, 11,640 years ago, probably included a 7 degree C rise in a decade. Just imagine the headlines!
*[For 'Further Reading', sit back with a good peaty whisky and enjoy James Thurber's masterpiece, The Beast in Me and Other Animals (first published in 1949), and forget that we are all about to be destroyed by an asteroid/global warming/new virus/biodiversity bombshell/nuclear meltdown/chemical cornucopia/tidal wave/rising and/or falling sea-level/GM plant/cloned sheep/......... - delete, or insert, as you feel appropriate.]
Philip, who hasn't a fog what will happen in ten years, never mind 50 or 100 years, but who is really enjoying all the biodiversity mayhem in this morning's news. "What larks, Pip!"

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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