Neophobia

By: Lykke E. Andersen*

One of my favourite Christmas presents this season was a book recommendation: Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction written by British biologist and ecologist Chris D. Thomas.

As the gift-giver very well knows, I don’t particularly sympathise with ecologists, conservationists, and conservatives, as I find them irrational in their fixation on an imagined perfect world 50 to 150 years ago, which they cling on to at all costs, ignoring billions of years of evolution, and thinking they know better which species (and people) ought to be where and when.

The author of the book, Chris D. Thomas, is labelled “shockingly contrarian” because, in contrast to the popular perception of humans being in the process of causing the 6th mass extinction on this planet, he argues that biodiversity has increased in almost every country, county or island as a direct consequence of human activity.

I have long suspected this was the case, just by watching the beautiful gardens in my parents’ old neighbourhood in a medium sized city in Denmark, and contrasting those with the neighbouring protected forest. The gardens on the street overflowed with thousands of different pretty, pretty plants. The neighbouring forest was also impressive with the large beautiful trees and the deer walking around, but simple biodiversity bean-counting would indicate that the city gardens were clearly more biodiverse.

Thomas, as a Cambridge trained biologist with a masters in ecology and a subsequent Ph.D. from University of Texas, having published hundreds of scientific studies, which have been cited more than 37,000 times, obviously packs a lot more credibility than my intuition. He estimates that, on average, every island (and island-like area) has 20-100% more biodiversity now than it would have had in the absence of humans.

Needless to say, he recognizes the devastating effects humans have had on big animals and vulnerable species (such as flightless birds) across the world, but he argues that these extinctions were mainly caused by our stone-age ancestors (deliberately hunting large animals) and early explorers (inadvertently bringing along dogs, rats and other species that rapidly extinguished local species unaccustomed to those threats). Modern society is causing an unprecedented increase in biodiversity, mainly because we are moving species across continents so much more rapidly than plate tectonics and the occasional hurricane have ever been able to do before.

Ecologists usually hate imported species, and they have mobilized customs officials in almost every airport of the world to fight against the movement of species across borders. Fortunately, they are not very effective. I personally smuggled three Danish acorns into Bolivia 18 years ago, and while the resulting trees are still debating between themselves whether it is summer or winter (1), they are finally turning into real oak-trees. So I have personally increased biodiversity in the Bolivian Altiplano, while I am pretty sure I haven’t caused any extinctions.

And that is the general effect of humans on Earth. We are causing biodiversity increases much more rapidly than we are causing extinctions. Thomas’ arguments go much further than just moving species around, though. He argues that the species transported to new places will eventually evolve into different species, unable to mate with their ancestors. Thus, my oak-trees in Bolivia, if they grow old enough to have acorns, may have off-springs that turn into ever-green oak-trees, much different from their grand-parents. If that really happens, I would personally have caused a new species to appear!

I absolutely love botanical gardens around the world. It is one of the first places I go to when I visit a new city. I admire the incredible, visionary work of their founders, and I refuse to consider it a crime to help increase biodiversity and natural beauty in the world, so I will continue to smuggle in the seeds of beautiful/tasty/useful plants I come across.

Thomas tells the story of the Monterey Pine, an endangered species (according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature), and critically endangered in one of its original locations on Guadalupe Island, mainly because of feral goats and a fungal disease. Fortunately, someone smuggled seeds of the Monterey Pine to New Zealand, Australia and Chile, where the pine has spread happily in the absence of those threats, and with the help of humans. Indeed, by now it is the most widely planted pine in the world, valued for rapid growth and desirable lumber qualities. It currently accounts for 95% of timber production in Chile, and 89% of New Zealand’s plantation forests (2).

Of course conservationists complain that the Monterey Pine (Pinus Radiata) is displacing native species in these new locations. Meanwhile, on Guadalupe Island conservationists are killing off the goats and fencing in the few remaining critically endangered pine trees to try to keep them alive. This just does not make any sense to me. How can the very same plant be a critically endangered species in one location, in need of preservation at all costs (even justifying the killing of other species), while it is considered an invasive species in other locations, despite being highly valued by the local population?

If we want our own and other species to survive in this era of rapid change, we really have to get over our neophobia and our tendency to judge which species (and persons) ought to be where and when. Every species should be allowed to grow in the environment where it best flourishes (3). That is how our planet has always dealt with an ever-changing climate and thus managed to systematically increase the level of biodiversity.

I encourage everybody to engage in a bit of civil disobedience and help disseminate their favourite species to other parts of the globe, and thus help avoid the 6th mass extinction.

 

* Senior Researcher at INESAD. The viewpoints expressed in this blog are the responsibility of the author and may not reflect the viewpoints of all members of Fundación INESAD.

Notes:

(1) I can’t blame them, because it is freezing cold right now in the middle of summer and with much less sun than in the middle of winter. I am impressed they are surviving at all.

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinus_radiata

(3) With the exception of diseases and pests that clearly harm humans. Those we are allowed to fight in any way we can in the name of self-defence.

 

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7 comments

  1. Good response, Lykke, to the “neophobe” {: We live in Jaco, Costa Rica and routinely have new plants popping up in our yard, the seeds delivered via bird poo. The new “natural” plants add to the new “artificial” plants that my wife brings home as shoots or seedlings. We are not the only species who moves other plant and animal species around on this planet! A long time ago I realized that climate change alarmists, and now neophobes, seem to assume that before humans “sinned”, Earth was a geologically and biologically stable Garden of Eden Paradise. That old Bible story seems to have taken deep root in the Western mind, as historical “fact”. The reality is that Earth has always been highly geologically and biologically active, not static. We can’t predict what unintended consequences our actions will generate within these complex dynamic systems. But we also can’t avoid doing the actions, because that’s what is required for us to “live here” on this planet. Until I read your article, I had simply taken as given the conventional wisdom that humans are destroying biodiversity. I find it very encouraging to learn how our actions are contributing to biodiversity!

    • Thank you for your comment, Derryl. I fully anticipated getting whacked for supporting Dr. Thomas’ contrarian viewpoints, but I felt getting called a flat-earther was a bit extreme, and I appreciate your counterbalancing comment.

  2. Dr. André Lindner

    … this is shockingly dangerous and straight forward wrong! … and here is a very brief explanation why:

    First of all it’s essential to know that the majority of species on this planet are still unknown to science and we are changing/managing an environment which complexity and cross-linkages we barely understand. Second, biodiversity is so much more complex than a simple number of species! It comprises the genetic diversity of single species, the diversity of habitats/ecosystems within a given area and maybe most importantly when discussing the issue given by the contribution above: functional diversity – the manifold of inter-specific interactions in any given ecosystem, in which the IDENTITY of species is crucial – not the NUMBER!

    There is a scientific consensus, that biodiversity loss is the ONE main challenge (yes, even in front of climate change) for continuous human well-being and development! Because human development was (and is!) only possible and dependent on the functioning of the ecosystems we developed in – if we compromise them, we will maybe not go extinct; but for sure our social/economic structures would fail.
    Of course species (including humans) are always adapting (and evolving), but the timeframe in which anthropocentric induces changes occur, simply does NOT allow any adaptation in most cases – and if you can not adapt, you only move or die … that’s IT!

    … as just mentioned: of course species adapted, moved and got extinct long before humans existed – but it never happened at THAT speed … and in this regard even to promote the introduction of exotic species (especially to island regions) is plain ignorant! … because there are so MANY examples of negative effects.

    Every serious (and that includes a non-bias and objective point of view) ecologist would immediately reject the ideas given above … e.g. equalize (botanical) gardens to native ecosystems …

    I will stop here … although there is so much more to say. Only one last thing regarding one of the final notes of the author: “With the exception of diseases and pests that clearly harm humans” … and what’s with the exception of potential diseases and pests that clearly harm species of systems we as humans depend on for water, food, material … etc.??

    Finally – the content of this “contribution” (and therefore the main source cited as well) in my opinion is on the same level of the “science” of creationists, climate change deniers and flat-earthers … and that the author is s senior “researcher”(!) baffles me …

    • Thank you for expressing the traditional, neophobic point of view so well, Dr. Lindner. At least you admit in your comment that the only two options in a world of rapid change are “move or die … That’s IT!”. I suggest “move” might be the better of the two options.

      • Dr. André Lindner

        In contrast to your response, giving no arguments at all and just denying and calling “names” (similar to the skeptics already mentioned in my original response), I will continue to argue – in the end that’s what science is all about:

        I am afraid to be forced to correct you that movement by plants and animals induced by natural stressors is something completely different than anthropogenic transport – furthermore (also referring to the comment by the other reader), no ecologist EVER considers the environment as static … it’s just that systems need time to adapt; and that a lot of human perspectives are limited to their own life expectancy, which is in no relation to adaptive/evolutionary or even geological scales.

        Also your definition of “neophobia” leaves me rather confused … there are established terms in ecology, e.g. “neophytes”, which are plants colonizing a new habitat naturally as a lot of central-European tree species after the last ice-age … that’s normal and happens all the time and nothing “new” will ever be judged as “bad” in a general way!

        … and maybe it’s (again) the misunderstanding that modern ecologists/conservationists want to “safe the planet” … not at all – the planet is fine! It’s the concern to care for an environment where human civilization and prosperity can continue to exist and development (in our current understanding) is still possible!

        I invite you to read (at least) the following two articles and would be happy to continue a constructive(!) discussion:

        Biodiversity losses and conservation responses in the Anthropocene
        http://science.sciencemag.org/content/356/6335/270

        The rise of invasive species denialism
        https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169534716301938

        • Dear Dr. Lindner,

          Like you, I would also much prefer this to turn into a constructive and civilized conversation, rather than name-calling. I would be happy to read the two articles you suggest, if you would be so kind as to send them to me by e-mail, as they are both locked behind pay-walls.

          Regarding the definition of neophobia, it was also an unknown concept to me before I read Dr. Thomas’ book, but it refers to an “irrational fear or dislike of anything new, novel, or unfamiliar”. I was thinking about it in relation to humans, rather than plants, as I am not sure whether plants feel fear.

          Neophobia is very common in people. Almost everybody is uncomfortable with change, which is why we stay in unfulfilling jobs or relationships much too long, and why only 3% of the global population live in another country than the one in which they happened to be born.

          As per your own argument about “move or die”, I think we need to fight our natural neophobic tendencies, and instead keep an open mind about where people and species should or should not be. This opinion may be part of what you call “invasive species denialism” (I am looking forward to read more about it!), but the opposite sounds an awful lot like racism to me. If a specific tree species is threatened by extinction on a specific island, why not save it by moving it to places where it can thrive? The same holds for people. If a specific place is becoming increasingly inhospitable (because of climate change, war or overpopulation, for example), why not let people move and save themselves and their children? It seems cruel to me to systematically prevent both people and species from using this last resort method of adaptation.

          The whole blog post was supposed to be a double attack on the irrationality of blindly opposing both human migration and species migration, when there are clearly potentially large economic gains and biodiversity gains to be had from allowing increased migration in a well-managed way.

          Finally, I encourage you to read Thomas’ book yourself. The guy is clearly not a flat-earther, creationist or climate-change-denier. He is a highly accomplished researcher in your field, who is just looking at things from a new perspective and questioning some basic assumptions. Being able to question your own basic beliefs and assumptions is a crucial part of being a good researcher.

          • Dr. André Lindner

            “I would be happy to read the two articles you suggest, if you would be so kind as to send them to me by e-mail, as they are both locked behind pay-walls.”

            – I just did send you the articles.

            “I was thinking about it in relation to humans, rather than plants, as I am not sure whether plants feel fear.”

            – They don’t … and what’s the connection to our discussion?

            “Almost everybody is uncomfortable with change, which is why we stay in unfulfilling jobs or relationships much too long, and why only 3% of the global population live in another country than the one in which they happened to be born.”

            – That’s more than debatable, looking at economic restrictions alone!

            “As per your own argument about “move or die”,[…]

            – It’s “move, adapt(!) or die” and that’s the only three options all organisms have in respect to a changing environment

            “If a specific tree species is threatened by extinction on a specific island, why not save it by moving it to places where it can thrive?”

            – Because that species is part of a system(!); simply bringing it to another area does not only help the system in vain, but might also alter (possibly in a negative way) the system it is introduced to.

            “The same holds for people. If a specific place is becoming increasingly inhospitable (because of climate change, war or overpopulation, for example), why not let people move and save themselves and their children?”

            – for me that is not a comparison able to be made!

            “[…] clearly potentially large economic gains and biodiversity gains to be had from allowing increased migration in a well-managed way.”

            – there is no convincing evidence supporting this (to my knowledge); also keep in mind the timeframe of such “management options”; natural systems might have a delayed/slow response time and looking at them from a human lifetime perspective might be misleading in terms of sustainability.

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