By November 17, 2010 2 Comments Read More →

Does the word biodiversity hinder public awareness and what can we do about it?

I recently commented on the relative stagnation in searches for the word “biodiversity” during the first three quarters of 2010 — a possible failure of the UN’s Year of Biodiversity. It’s hard to say if the lackluster performance of search results reflects lack of public interest in biodiversity.

At least part of the problem may be in the term itself. In this, the Year of Biodiversity, the BBC reports that when members of the public were asked what they thought what biodiversity was, the most common answer was “a kind of washing powder.” Ouch!

Given such myopia, it’s understandable that Mike Shanahan, press officer at the International Institute for Environment and Development, would suggest on his blog that we “kill biodiversity,” i.e., that the word is ditched altogether. However, as the comments on Mr. Shanahan’s post suggest, the idea to get rid of the word is unlikely to take hold. It’s impractical to abolish it. Much media and academic discourse has already been invested in it.

A constructive approach would be to agree on a definition of biodiversity that can be included in all outreach, education and media. Indeed, Twitter user @RobertRead asks “Doesnt the term “biodiversity” badly need reframing”?

Taking that cue, let’s start with what definitions of biodiversity are already the most established. A Google search for definitions of biodiversity returned a bunch of different results (see list below).

Clearly there is a diversity of definitions! How can we make sense of the numerous variations to arrive at a consensual definition? One way is to look at the common themes. We can visualize this with a word cloud, which emphasizes the most frequently occuring words. Here is a word cloud for the definitions in the list (omitting common words such as “the” and self-referential words such as “biodiversity).

Word cloud of biodiversity definitions online

Word cloud created from definitions of biodiversity found with Google search.

From the word cloud, we see that species is clearly dominant in the definitions, followed by life, variety and diversity. Species de facto dominate in the online definitions, but there is no scientific basis for such dominance, as important as species are for conservation or taxonomy. However, biodiversity applies to ecosystems, biological communities and genetics but these are less prominent in the word cloud. Biodiversity applies to all life.

This exercise suggests that the range of definitions is simply further confusing the public, teachers and students of biodiversity. And, I suggest, formal definitions are not helping. For example, Article 2 of the Convention on Biological Diversity states: “‘Biological diversity” means the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.”

Blech! How can we expect teachers, students and the public to get excited about that?

Let’s simplify the definition of biodiversity. I propose “the variety of life.” It’s all-encompassing and, perhaps, more importantly, it’s easy to understand. It’s the same definition as that used on Ecokids, the only children’s site in the list of definitions. We need to take biodiversity beyond academia. Convoluted definitions will just be a hindrance. Biodiversity as “the  variety of life” is simple and easy to understand, but still meaningful.

With this admittedly minimalist definition, “biodiversity” remains a useful term, but specifics would have to be applied in its usage. For more complex usage we can further define biodiversity as needed, for example in terms of variety at the ecosystem, species or genetic level, or referring to a region, biome or time period. The word cloud below gives a more impressionist sense of the simplified “biodiversity.”

Word cloud for biodiversity from word frequencies

Word cloud for the word biodiversity created from frequency of words in a simplified definition.

Is this the final word on the word? Of course not! But we badly need consensus. And we need to communicate that quickly and effectively to the media, teachers, students and the public. I hope that this post is a first step in that direction. Certainly biodiversity professionals must begin to agree and converge on common meaning and terminology. Unless we do, the public are likely to be no better informed after this Year of Biodiversity than they were before.

List of definitions of “biodiversity” found with a Google search

I have ordered the list in approximate order of authority. The ranking is based on Google page rank (measured with Page Rank Checker) combined with the Alexa traffic rank. (With Google Page rank, higher is better. Maximum score = 10. Page ranks were unavailable for some sites. Alexa traffic rank applies to the top domain only. Lower is better. Best score = 1.)

Posted in: Biodiversity, Media

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