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.
Elizabeth Callaway is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Utah.
"From birding memoirs and science fiction to seed-saving vaults and evolutionary 'supertrees,' this book serves as a primer to biodiversity concepts and explanations for a non-scientific audience."
– Heather Houser, University of Texas at Austin, author of Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data
"The bibliography is excellent (essential in a book like this one), the illustrations are superbly chosen, and the diagrams elucidate difficult concepts. The reader will come away from this stimulating, lucid text impressed by the diversity and cohesion of the author's mind. Science and the humanities are brought together in this truly interdisciplinary work. Summing Up: Essential. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates. Graduate students, faculty, and researchers. General readers."