In the past thirty years biodiversity has become one of the central organizing principles
through which we understand the nonhuman environment. Its deceptively simple definition
as the variation among living organisms masks its status as a hotly contested term
both within the sciences and more broadly. In Eden’s Endemics, Elizabeth Callaway looks to cultural objects—novels, memoirs, databases, visualizations,
and poetry— that depict many species at once to consider the question of how we narrate
organisms in their multiplicity.
Touching on topics ranging from seed banks to science fiction to bird-watching, Callaway
argues that there is no set, generally accepted way to measure biodiversity. Westerners
tend to conceptualize it according to one or more of an array of tropes rooted in
colonial history such as the Lost Eden, Noah’s Ark, and Tree-of-Life imagery. These
conceptualizations affect what kinds of biodiversities are prioritized for protection.
While using biodiversity as a way to talk about the world aims to highlight what is
most valued in nature, it can produce narratives that reinforce certain power differentials—with
real-life consequences for conservation projects. Thus the choices made when portraying
biodiversity impact what is visible, what is visceral, and what is unquestioned common
sense about the patterns of life on Earth.