The Encyclopedia of Life: A Complicated Beast

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The Encyclopedia of Life, a website that came out earlier this year and crashed almost immediately from a flood of visitors, is a “project to organize and make available via the Internet virtually all information about life present on earth.” With approximately 1.8 million known species on earth, this is a great tool for scientists and students, and it grants open access to anyone who wants to brush up on their knowledge of earth’s creatures, from seals to viruses and everything else in between. 

Sounds great, right? Well, Randy Malamud, writing in The Chronicle Review (subscription or pass required), sees more going on here than an eight-eyed jumping spider, and asks if the digital nature of EOL will “encourage us to appreciate plants and animals more, or spend more time surfing online?” He suggests that the more we cite and arrange plants and animals the less we care about them in their environment–that taxonomy parallels destruction.

He also thinks the animals are out of their element, if you will, as a pin-up for each individual entry. All animals in life are affected by and play a role in their ecosystems. We should consider the role in history they play with human interaction, and their importance of place. An example he gives is Australian Aborigines’ use of the imperial blue butterfly. Their host plant, the acacia, provides seeds to the natives as food and its gum as an adhesive for tool building. The butterfly then, is an integral part of the Aborigines’ culture, but it’s not referenced on the EOL website.

Who is classifying the animals, Malamud argues, tells you more about the human environment than the exotic outside world. “Structuring the natural world meshes with the structure of imperial power,” he writes, and he quotes MIT historian Harriet Ritvo: “The classification of animals, is apt to tell us as much about the classifiers as the classified.”

Any ecologist will tell you that life on earth is about ecosystems. Malamud thinks one step in the right direction for the website’s success may be that “the EOL might take a cue from Facebook or Myspace for an enhanced sense of connectivity.”

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