Loss of biodiversity in literature

How did the literary treatment of living beings change parallel to the real extinction of species? (Image: Gabriele Rada / iDiv)

Oak, beech, fir – or just a tree: The frequency and variety of expressions used to describe animals and plants in Western literature has increased over the past 300 years, but since the 1830s the diversity of species has decreased. This is shown by an analysis of a total of 16,000 works. According to the researchers, these results reflect the change in human attitudes towards nature during this period of industrialization. Your approach could now also be applied to modern media to capture trends.

The sixth great mass extinction in the history of the earth is in full swing: the world is losing animal and plant species at a rapid pace as a result of human activities. This process accelerated especially in the last 300 years. For this reason, an international team of researchers has now dedicated itself to this time window in a special way. The scientists wanted to gain clues as to the extent to which the biodiversity crisis of the real world was connected to the minds of the people. They chose literature as a reflection of this connection: They examined how the linguistic treatment of biodiversity in books has changed over the past 300 years. For the study, the researchers used the literature from Project Gutenberg. With almost 60,000 works, it is the largest digital, public collection of western fiction in English. But it also includes translations of books from other original languages.

Change of consciousness in the mirror of literature

The researchers focused on the literature from 1705 to 1969 for this study. They chose this area because it covers the period before and during industrialization, but ends before the advent of broad digital mass media. Because the development in recent history requires a separate investigation due to different basic structures, explain the researchers. In total, they evaluated 16,000 works by 4,000 authors. For this purpose, the texts were first searched for terms for all kinds of living beings. This resulted in an extensive list of 240,000 names – from cockchafer to lavender. Using this special vocabulary, all texts were then examined for word occurrences, frequencies and distributions. “By developing new computer-aided analysis methods, we were able to systematically examine and evaluate the literature according to the biological terms it contains,” explains first author Lars Langer from the University of Leipzig.

As the scientists report, a characteristic development curve emerged in the evaluation results: The frequency and variety of expressions of names for animals and plants in literature initially increased up to the middle of the 19th century, but then decreased continuously. Specifically, especially after 1835, there was a tendency to use less specific terms for living beings. This means that more and more basic terms were used – such as tree instead of a more specific term such as oak. This downward trend apparently affected more living beings in the human environment and from nature. Animals and plants with which they were permanently and frequently – such as domesticated species -, however, were named consistently often, the analyzes showed.

What was behind this development?

Scientists interpret the initial increase in biodiversity in literature as a result of cultural developments in the 18th century. Improving research and education in the Age of Enlightenment may therefore have contributed to the increase in literary biodiversity. A certain fascination with the discovery of new species in the context of colonization could also have played a role. In addition, during the romantic period, an initial awareness of the incipient loss of biodiversity arose, say the researchers.

But these developments were then probably superseded by industrialization, urbanization and the associated changes in land use. The complex process triggered a real extinction of species, which presumably also went hand in hand with an impoverishment of nature-related thought patterns. According to the researchers, the literary loss of biodiversity probably reflects an increasing alienation of humans from nature. “Real biodiversity crises seem to be closely related to a mental crisis,” says senior author Christian Wirth from the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research Halle-Jena-Leipzig. “We see that with the beginning of industrialization, both crises run in parallel and we assume that they mutually condition and reinforce one another”.

In doing so, Wirth directs his gaze to our times and emphasizes the need for further studies of this kind: “I think that we can only stop the real loss of biodiversity by means of a profound change in consciousness. Our research approach can detect whether political programs, crises or positive examples make biodiversity more present in our heads. Today, in addition to books, social media would also be very informative. ”“ The method also has the potential to be transferred to other cultures, cultural assets and periods of time. A future investigation of current media would also enable current analyzes of the human-nature relationship, ”concludes Langer.

Source: German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, specialist article: People and Nature, doi: 10.1002 / pan3.10256

Recent Articles

Related Stories

Stay on op - Ge the daily news in your inbox