standard Biodiversity: The co-evolutionary relationship between humans and nature

Biodiversity is not only key to the survival of the human species, but the entire planet.  It is known as one of the most important drivers of global environmental change.  Anyone with appreciation for diversity of wildlife where they live for example understands the importance of biodiversity to non-human communities, but it is also essential to many human ones.  As the Earth’s ecosystems are currently threatened by a wide range of environmental factors such as climate change, land fragmentation and global intensification of agriculture, changes that take place at a local and global scale could together have dynamic, unforeseen impacts on the planet as a whole.

Many mostly non-western societies are directly dependent upon biodiversity for their livelihoods.  People who depend on biodiversity usually live in rural areas or in forests sharing a close relationship with species they depend on for survival.  Biodiversity refers to many things, but especially species richness or abundance, reproduction of plant and animal species and both the timing and geographic dispersion of species throughout the world.

At the Tipping Points conference Prof Patricia Howard from the School of Anthropology & Conservation at the University of Kent, gave a truly excellent presentation on biodiversity tipping points within socio-ecological systems.  Her research is focused on the livelihoods of rural populations in particular how they adapt to changing environments, the role of keystone species such as the camel for the Sahrawi who live in the Western Sahara and how humans and nature co-evolve.

Tipping points have only recently been linked to biodiversity, which is expected to shift radically within relatively short periods of time (see Earth Tipping Points?).  Climate change is one driver of biodiversity loss, but there are many others that are primarily produced by humans.  Patricia gave several examples of regional biodiversity tipping points such as the die-back of the Amazon Rainforest, desertification and the loss of tropical coral reefs.  Many important changes have been occurring now that impact biodiversity such as ocean acidification (see Tipping point for coral reefs?).  The relevance of studying biodiversity for tipping points research is that it also seems related to the notion that small changes could indeed make a big difference as Malcolm Gladwell illustrates in his book The Tipping Point, but in this case with profound, unintended and devastating consequences.

It is of course no surprise that humans dominate the planet yet interestingly they are often left out of models that are used to understand changes in biodiversity, as changes induced by humans are often viewed as ‘unnatural’, but anthropogenic (human-driven) ecological changes are affecting life on Earth at such an incredible scale that they must be included if we are to truly grasp the extent at which people are transforming their environments (see Putting people in the map: anthropogenic biomes of the world).  But I think it’s important to note that change itself is not the problem here per say, rather it’s the types of changes that are taking place at a scale that humans seem to only have partial if any control over.  Patricia noted importantly that ‘humans organise socially to alter the environment to meet socially-defined needs’.  Altering the Earth’s environment is in a sense what we’re here to do in the first place, but it’s the how that is most important here, not why, because how people change the environment could benefit biodiversity instead of simply destroying it.

What I found especially interesting during this talk was how Patricia conveyed people’s means of resilience or adaptive capacities to environmental change, the ways people exchange knowledge, skills and innovation to survive.  And this is where biodiversity plays a fascinating role in human cultural evolution in that it provides the foundation for social organization and even cultural identity.  Maybe this seems elementary if closely scrutinized, but there is a habit of viewing species other than human (or even humans for that matter) as objects separate from the cultural practices and identities people depend upon for survival.

Yet cultures where biodiversity plays a central role to their livelihoods have been labeled as ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’ when it is this subject/object dualism that has plagued many human civilizations for thousands of years and despite scientific and technological advances many people today, especially those most cut-off from biodiversity, simply don’t get it.  At best it is seen as a romanticism and at worse something to be made obsolete – this is how much of the ‘developed’ world has viewed its relationship with biodiversity — as something best left forgotten.

In response to this grave mistake in human cultural evolution, Patricia recommends developing the capacity for planetary cultural resilience, meaning ‘biocultural diversity’, generating new alternatives to generating stable new states that can sustain themselves for many generations.  This includes building new human-nature relations and the means (knowledge and skills) for adapting to global environmental change at a local level and economic relations that move beyond the limitations of a global financial system that is far too myopic in its method(s) and actions to be able to cope with the changes humans and other species mush adapt to.

Re-blogged from IHRR’s Tipping Points project’s blog.  A video of Patricia’s talk from the Tipping Points conference at Durham University, ‘Biodiversity tipping points and biodiversity-dependent socio-ecological systems, pathways for human adaptation?’, will be available on the Tipping Points blog in due course.


  1. As a frequent reader of this blog, I have to say I am disappointed. Other blogs have challenged the readers — for example the blog on governance of geoengineering. However, this one feels like a lecture given to a middle school (US junior high school) class. I also the blog author misrepresents Prof. Howard, since the precis of her presentation contains nothing more than is covered by introductory university level cultural geography. What is there to dispute?

    Perhaps to spice things up a little, let me take the role of devil’s advocate. Is any and all biodiversity good? Does Planet Earth actually need all the species on board at the moment in order to thrive? What about all the mega extinctions that have punctuated Earth history?

    isn’t the case that when species disappear others fill the vacant niche? To function the Earth needs fauna and flora at a large number to trophic levels. But it doesn’t necessary need the anopheles mosquito, does it?

    Let’s get down out of the Gaian pulpit and stop preaching that BIODIVERSITY IS GOOD, full stop, no questions asked.

    :Let’s ask questions. That is what science is about!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that questions should be asked about the role of biodiversity itself, but I really only intended to introduce some of the ideas that ecologists, anthropologists and many other kinds of scientists have about biodiversity that were introduced at a conference I attended. Maybe you can find it in a text book, but that’s not really the point I don’t think. And I’m sure there are, have been or could be cases where biodiversity isn’t as important or at least not to humans, however, what is happening now is that biodiversity loss (see this paper for context is reducing species in ways that will have large destructive impacts on the Earth’s environment(s), including ones humans depend on and not only indigenous communities. But I think the role of indigenous communities in communicating the impacts of biodiversity loss, climate change and other environmental problems is crucial. I think they understand these problems like no other, scientists included. But also modelling complex systems can reveal how these systems work together and what role biodiversity does play in regulating life on this planet as a whole. Also, it’s difficult to say whether something as complex as biodiversity is simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, I think this is putting it too simplistically, rather I think biodiversity is always part of the equation(s) whether we like it or not. It appears anyway that without some level of biodiversity it is very likely humans wouldn’t be here in the first place and that biodiversity plays a fascinating role in the development of human cultures(s) over time. So the good/bad distinction doesn’t work in terms of looking at the bigger picture, but as you point out neither does simply promoting the idea of biodiversity merely by assumption, although I don’t think I did so 🙂

  2. Hi, Brett,

    I think we agree on basics, Brett. The points I tried to make in my comment were three.

    Firstly, the way you wrote the blog makes it sound as though you’d been to a church service where people worshiped biodiversity in all forms, writ large, no questions asked. I am certainly not saying biodiversity is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. My comment was that the style of the blog made it sound as though the conference you reported on thought that it was ‘good’.

    Secondly, I was alarmed by the way you portrayed the work of Pat Howard, who is an old friend and colleague since 1981. Her work is much more sophisticated, but, again, the style of the write up you gave in the blog made it sounds as though she did no more than rehearse what undergrads find in cultural geography textbooks.

    These two comments go to the quality of your scientific journalism. I am sorry, I just have to say that your normal standard — and I have enjoyed the other three or four you’ve done so far — slipped in this case.

    My third point was that the earlier blogs challenged readers with difficult questions. What’s the difficult question in this case? I can think of several, chief among which are the political and economic constraints in perserving keystone species (where we understand which they are) and major endangered ecosystems and even biomes — the case of coral, rain forest, etc.

    I should, perhaps, add an additional point. In your reply to me, you write of indigenous people, “… [T]hey understand these problems like no other, scientists included.” Let’s be clear. They understand some problems differently, but not necessarily better or more effectively in the sense of being able to solve them. My view and experience over 46 years (in Tanzania, Kenya and elsewhere) is that it takes a dialogue of outside specialist knowledge and local (what you would call ‘indigenous’) knowledge to solve the problems that globalisation has brought.

    Finally, to avoid giving the wrong impression, I want to emphasize that on balance I think this blog is great. I am trying to give you constructive criticism, but also i want to communicate my gratitude for the solid work you’re doing.

    Cheers, BEN

    P/S What do others think? ARE there other readers???

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