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Where is the invasion biology debate headed?

June 1, 2017

Mark Davis speaking at Beyond Pesticides conference, April 2017

Mark Davis is Professor of Biology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.  He is one of the first academic ecologists to publicly express skepticism of invasion biology.  His book, Invasion Biology, was published by Oxford University Press in 2009.  It was the first critique of invasion biology written by an academic scientist. Professor Davis cites the many empirical studies that find little evidence supportive of the hypotheses of invasion biology. 

In 2011, Nature magazine published an essay written by Professor Davis and 18 coauthors entitled, “Don’t Judge Species on their Origins.”  This essay suggested that conservationists evaluate species based on their ecological impact, rather than whether or not they are natives.  The essay initiated an intense debate in the academic community of ecologists that continues today. 

Professor Davis spoke at the Beyond Pesticides conference in Minneapolis at the end of April 2017. (Video available HERE) He described invasion biology as an irrational ideology that is based on nostalgia for the past and a belief that wildlands are being damaged by “alien invaders.”  In fact, the perceived damage is largely in the eye of the beholder, depending largely on one’s membership in a group benefiting from the nativism paradigm, such as chemical manufacturers, conservation organizations, government agencies, and employees.  Some academic careers are also at stake.  Futile attempts to re-create historical landscapes always have the potential to make things worse.  In many instances, it is more sensible to change one’s attitude about the changing landscape than trying to change nature.

We invited Professor Davis to write a guest post for publication on Million Trees.  We asked him to express his opinion on these questions: 

  • Has the status of invasion biology changed much since Nature published your essay 2011?
  • Has increased knowledge of climate change had an impact on the status of invasion biology in academia?
  • What do you think is the future of invasion biology both as an academic discipline and as public policy?

Professor Davis’s guest post addresses these questions.  We are grateful to Professor Davis for his many contributions to our understanding of the fallacies of invasion biology and for his thoughtful guest post.

Million Trees


Competition to define nature

In the past few years, a new perspective has been taking hold in the field of ecology.  Referred to as ‘ecological novelty’ it emphasizes that many factors are producing ecologically novel environments.  Climate change (which includes changes in temperatures and patterns of precipitation), increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, which affects photosynthetic rates, increased atmospheric deposition of nitrogen (the whole earth is being fertilized due to the increased nitrogen we are pouring into the atmosphere), and the introduction of new species are all rapidly changing our environments.

A strength of the term ecological novelty is that unlike the invasion vocabulary it is simply descriptive.  It simply states that ecosystems are changing and are different than they were in the past, even the recent past.  It says nothing about whether this change is good or bad.  In this paradigm, species can be referred to as novel species, new arrivals, or long-term residents.

The less biased ecological novelty paradigm differs dramatically from the more ideological nativism paradigm.  It differs in the language it uses and it differs in the implied direction that land management should proceed.  More generally, it forsakes the normative atmosphere that permeates restoration ecology, conservation biology, and invasion biology, all of which have been substantially guided by the nativism paradigm.

The Sutro Forest in San Francisco is a good example of a novel ecosystem. It is a thriving mix of native and non-native species. Much of it will be destroyed by the irrational belief that native species are superior to non-native species.  Million Trees

Currently, invasion biologists are trying to discredit ecological novelty as a valid or valuable perspective.  This is hardly surprising since the ecological perspective would displace the nativism paradigm, and many stakeholders have much to lose if the nativism paradigm were abandoned, e.g. chemical companies, restoration and management companies, local, state, and national agencies, to name just a few.  Not surprisingly, articles trying to shore up invasion ecology and to keep it relevant have been common in recent years.

While the public may not be aware of it, there exists a heated competition to define natureWhich side wins will significantly determine how nature is managed.  Given that the redistribution of species is only going to increase in upcoming decades, it is hard to imagine that people will still be so preoccupied with origins by the middle of the century.  Like the notion of wilderness, the nativism paradigm is more of a twentieth century concept, while the construct of ecological novelty is more fitting for the twenty first century.

Undoubtedly, nativist groups will still exist and will still be preoccupied with trying to restore their vision of the past.  But, due to the number of species being moved to new regions, much more attention likely will be given to the function of species than their origins, if only for pragmatic reasons.  For people coming of age now, cosmopolitanization is the new normal, both with respect to people and other species.  We will still carry our predispositions to divide the world into us and them, but it should be clear to most that the nativism perspective will be obsolete and that beyond the creation of museums, restoring the past will not be possible, whether a city or a forest.

Currently Earth is the only planet we know of where life exists.  In this context, the desire and practice of declaring some species as aliens, exotics, or invaders seems sadly provincial and even unseemly.  Roman playwrite Publius Terentius Afer (aka Terence) wrote in his play Heauton Timorumenos, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”, or “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” To those who still see such value in distinguishing native from alien species, I say, “I am of the planet Earth and nothing of that which is earthly is alien to me.”

Mark Davis

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