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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Institute

Revealing the Wonderful World of Biodiversity

By OOI KEE BENG, Penang Monthly Editorial January 2022

FOR ONCE IN my life, let me quote from The Bible to make a weighty point of contrast. In Genesis 7:9, it is stated: “There went in two and two unto Noah into the Ark, the male & the female, as God had commanded Noah”.

The impossibility of getting a pair of all animals on Earth into the Ark within seven days of being alerted about the coming flood aside, what interests me in the tale about Noah is the narrow nominalism that was at work there. Not only was it imaginable only to save animals found proximate to where the Ark was being built, the diversity within each species seemed to have been ignored.

As we know, under any creature category, one necessarily finds an amazing variety. Thus, one cannot say “parrot” without being confronted with the question “Which type?”. (Today, there are officially 402 types). One cannot make a request to “pick a tiger”, without a puzzled stare in reply wondering “Which type?” (Today, there are eight subspecies recognised, three of which have sadly gone extinct, and counting).

But I shall not press the point. After all, stories rely on short-hand and sweeping generalisations to survive posterity. My purpose with the citation is merely to post a stark reminder about human obliviousness to nature’s reliance on diversity, and to exemplify human arrogance in relation to other creatures.

Seeing Nature Anew

As the Age of Science dawned, and the wish for systematic and secular categorising of things found in nature grew strong, getting to know all examples of living things and how they relate or not to each other, became imperative. Most prominently, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (aka Carl von Linne, 1707-78), often considered “The Father of Modern Taxonomy”, formalised the binomial nomenclature for the conceptual organisation of all living things. Famously described by fellow Swede, the author August Strindberg as “a poet who happened to become a naturalist”, Linnaeus’ influence on biology, zoology and a host of other subjects, is unerasable. Later in life, expanding on his epistemic leanings, he championed the idea that government should be science-based, and helped found the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Linnaeus remained a very religious man, and entertained the notion of “divine retaliation”, still believing in the purposiveness of creation. Apparently, his immodest motto was “God created; Linnaeus classified”. [A resume of this extraordinary man can be read here: https: //www. britannica. com/biography/Carolus-Linnaeus].

But in the proposition to sort nature, (and by extension, perhaps society as well), lurks the notion of the ultimate connectedness in living things, and the blasphemy that diversity is as much a key to survival as species staticity intuitively appears to be, if not more so. Linnaeus had complained: “It is not pleasing [to my critics] that I placed humans among the primates, but man knows himself. Let us get the words out of the way. It will be equal to me by whatever name they are treated. But I ask you and the whole world a generic difference between men and simians in accordance with the principles of Natural History. I certainly know none.”

Change is the Only Constant

While one may consider a mapped reality of life forms as a still photo, a snapshot, it is not determined that procreation is mere copying. Instead, members of a species do undeniably vary in internal characteristics. Given that some of these variations become decisive for their survival, depending on the uncontrolled variations in environment circumstances, the idea of natural selection appears inevitable.

Through the conceptual leap taken by itinerant naturalists in the following century after being overwhelmed by nature’s biological diversity, such as Charles Darwin (1809-82) was in the Galapagos Islands and Alfred Russel Wallace in Southeast Asia, Natural Selection provides scientists today with the conceptual equipment to understand life forms in depth.

Where taxonomy is concerned, this “science of naming, describing and classifying organisms and includes all plants, animals and microorganisms of the world” – I am informed by my colleague, Professor Zulfigar Yasin from the School of Biological Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia – relies today on the dual approaches of genomics and detailed observation of appearances.

The wondering irony in our tale is that while biological diversity implies stability and interdependence between living things, it also signifies steady change within ecosystems.

For further reading:

• “Biodiversity”: https://www.nature.com/subjects/biodiversity;

• “What is Biodiversity”: https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/what-is-biodiversity;

• “Four Types of Biodiversity” https://sciencing.com/four-types-biodiversity-8714.html;

• “Darwin, Linnaeus, and One Sleepy Guy”: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/darwin-linnaeus-and-one-sleepy-guy.

About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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