The Hierarchy of Biodiversity

19 May 2021 The Hierarchy of Biodiversity

Photo Credit: Tara Sheehan ’24

Why does human civilization so often endanger biodiversity? Perhaps a change in how we see the natural world will make a difference.

First Aired: May 19, 2021 


Tara Sheenan: When we typically think about biodiversity loss, we think about losing the tigers and polar bears and whales. But after traveling to the United Arab Emirates, my advisor, Elise, got scared of biodiversity decline because of seeds! 

[ominous guitar music]

Elise Chambers: We went to a seedbank and it was the first time I’d ever seen someone be like “so just in case we all die and all of the plants die and everything dies that we need and we can’t somehow revive it, these are the backup plan.” And it kinda just blew my mind that there were a whole bunch of jars and containers in a refrigerated warehouse in the middle of the desert that had basically the backup to humanity. 

Sravani Duggirala: Imagine that; biodiversity loss has gotten so severe that we are storing seeds just to keep up. It’s experiences like this that got us thinking, what is wrong with human perception of biodiversity. I’m Sravani...

Tara: ...and I’m Tara. And here’s what we think is the problem. As a society, we have built a hierarchy of species. At the very top is us humans, of course, but right below are the species that serve people the most. We can’t keep thinking that other living things are only here for food, sport, entertainment, or companionship. We need to see a world where a system of species all simultaneously give and take.  

Sravani: And because of this hierarchy mindset, we find it difficult to understand the severity of biodiversity loss. Throughout history, humans have destroyed habitats to make way for our settlements and cattle. And these settlements have often come at the price of native plants and animals. Speaking on this is Professor David McGee from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is studying the effect that human involvement had on the extinction of large animals, or megafauna, in Madagascar.

[curious music]

David McGee: The interesting thing, to me, is that humans were on Madagascar for a couple of thousand years before everything went extinct. So, somehow, there was coexistence between humans and these megafauna. The timing of the extinction of this megafauna, roughly a thousand years ago, seemed to coincide with the introduction of cattle from Asia that demanded open pasture land, rather than closed forest, and it also enabled population growth.

Sravani: This example points to what went wrong when the people on Madagascar prioritized a certain species over others. Why cattle? Because cattle fed the growing population.

Tara: We still have this problematic mindset a thousand years later! Humans still show a special preference in accommodating the species that serve them. And we’re continuing to build a civilization that rich biodiversity simply doesn’t fit into. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and people went into isolation, we saw what happens when we take a step in the opposite direction. Although we’ve heard many anecdotes about this, what really illustrated it for me was hearing about a road trip experience from Dr. Emily Moberg. 

[soft guitar music] 

Emily Moberg: I drove a couple states, and it was very much during lockdown, and the amount of wildlife I saw crossing the road was incredible. I saw several foxes, including a baby fox; I saw a huge snapping turtle, I think it had to have been at least two and a half, three feet, booking it across a four-lane highway. Which was interesting, too; it felt very viscerally, like the animals were reclaiming space.

Sravani: It makes me wonder, does witnessing animals step back in as we step away teach us about a way that we can change our system of prioritizing some species over others? 

[soft piano music]

Sravani: So the next time that you're out in nature, or anywhere outdoors for that matter, take a moment to actually pay attention to the organisms you would normally overlook.

Tara: Consider -- what do these species around you require to thrive? And what are some ways that humans might depend on them? By doing this, we can develop this kind of mindfulness in nature. And maybe if enough people adopt this mindset, we won’t need to rely on seed banks as our backup to humanity. 

Sravani: When we understand the importance of each organism in our world, that’s when we can respect and protect the functioning ecosystem that we all depend on.

[guitar music]

Sravani: The opinions expressed here are our own, but the audio clips were gathered and story ideas were developed in collaboration with our classmates in Terrascope Radio, a class developed by the MIT Terrascope program with assistance from the MIT program in comparative media studies. Thank you to all the people who were interviewed for sharing their experiences and findings with our class and enabling us to share them with all of you.

Tara: We want to thank Terrascope director David McGee and Elise Chambers, who coordinates the Terrascope community, for helping us learn and grow during our first year at MIT. We also thank our undergraduate teaching fellows Felix Li and Amena Khatun for their feedback and technical support in producing this piece. Finally, we thank our instructor, Dr. Ari Epstein, for his tremendous guidance throughout the semester. Music from Blue Dot Sessions. Thanks for listening!