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The variety of life / Timing: 6:36

The variety of life


Life is wonderfully varied; biology is diverse, biodiversity. Thats the topic Im going to talk to you about
in this video. My name is David Macdonald and Im the founding Director of the Wildlife Conservation
Research Unit known as the WildCRU which is part of Oxford University.
Now, biodiversity. What is it? Actually, it is the variety of life on Earth in all of its forms and considering
all of its interactions and thats the definition which you can see is pretty all encompassing put forward
by E.O. Wilson, Edward Wilson, a famous biologist in 19881.
So, what does it mean, all of that diversity? It means not only species, which is probably what youre
accustomed to thinking about most readily when you think about the variety of different sorts of
animals and plants, but also the genes that make up the internal workings and characterisation of those
species. And the communities into which species assemble themselves and at a landscape scale; the
ecosystems, the functioning whole that combines these communities of animals and plants made up of
individuals. So biodiversity is simply the whole lot.
But lets just think about the amount of biodiversity there is and probably again, its easiest to think
about species. How many species are there? Well, about 1.2 million species of lifeforms have been
described but interestingly enough, thats just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more that have not
yet been described but of course, its hard to know what you dont know, isnt it? So just how many
more species remain to be discovered? People have tried to make sensible estimates of this but the
estimates come out with pretty wide variation, between 3 million species or 100 million species2. But
one very notable biologist, Robert May, Lord May of Oxford as hes now known, came up with the best
guess that there may be 8 or 9 million species3. So, maybe about 86% of species that exist have not yet
been described. And the situation is more bleak for the oceans where it may be over 90% of species that
exist have not yet become known to science. So, a big knowledge gap there.
Where is this biodiversity? Well, interestingly enough, its not spread uniformly around the world. Coral
reefs, for example, are particularly biodiverse. The tropics are wonderfully biodiverse. Many species per
unit area live in these parts of the world4. But think about it for a moment, what else do you know about
the tropics? You know that that is also where poverty is paramount amongst people. So when you come
to think about conservation, have it in mind that where some of the richest biodiversity is, is also where
humanity suffers the greatest problems5. This will turn out to be an important issue in conservation.
So, why should we care about biodiversity and its loss? There are some practical reasons and I think we
can divide them into two: lets call them selfish and utilitarian for one category and esthetical
philosophical for another category.
So to deal with these practical or utilitarian reasons first. There are two basic categories of reason why
the human enterprise, why every single one of you would be impacted by the loss of biodiversity. One is
direct use so direct use is where people, some group of people, use animals or plants to their benefit.
There is a direct contribution to human well-being from the existence of some elements of biodiversity.
But more pervasive and widespread is the indirect contribution. The human enterprise depends on the
natural world you need fresh water, fresh air, you need forests, you need oceans. All of these things
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The variety of life / Timing: 6:36

underpin the existence of human society and the cogs that make that machine turn globally are
biodiversity. Without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity. You may pause to consider how much
of it we can afford to lose before that machine stops working.
This means that the fashion of the moment is to try and put a cash value on biodiversity, to illustrate to
politicians and policymakers just how important it is. But actually, money as you know, isnt everything
and biodiversity is also important because of its esthetic or philosophical value to people just in terms of
its existence and its beauty and its wonder. Think about the enchanting nature of nature and its
workings and if those things are lost, we end up all the poorer. Its an argument which when I was a
schoolboy, I termed the Mona Lisa argument: rip it up and you cant put it together again. And so too,
with biodiversity.
I think that these together make it clear that every single citizen is a stakeholder in biodiversity. Every
single citizen has an investment in keeping biodiversity functional as well as beautiful.
So just to recap, biodiversity is pretty well everything that scuttles, slithers, runs or jumps or even stays
in the same place growing. It is the story of life. Its distributed around the world in different ways; much
remains to be found out about it but its vitally important to the human enterprise and the future of
society and its in big trouble.
So next, please take the learning check just to make sure youve got all these ideas about biodiversity
clearly in mind. And the next video will be about ecosystem services, explaining to you just how your
lives and everybody elses depend on the way that biodiversity constructs the world.

1988. Edward O.Wilson, editor, Biodiversity, National Academy Press.

Mora C et al. (2011) How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean? PLoS Biol 9(8): e1001127.
http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127
3

May RM & Beverton RJH (1990) How many species are there? Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 330
(1257) 293-304 http://www.jstor.org/stable/76864
4

Gaston K. (2000) Global patterns in biodiversity. Nature 405, 220-227

Fisher B & Treg C (2007) Poverty and biodiversity: Measuring the overlap of human poverty and the biodiversity
hotspots, Ecological Economics 62 (1) 93-101