by James Bailey |

Recently the Wall Street Journal Ideas section ran an article about “Diversity.” It starts with a cartoon of a woman eyeballing an array of stick figures followed by text about adding "rigor" to the scene. Since the BEADEDeye is big on what things look like, it could not help wondering how the cartoon would benefit from more of this "rigor."

The subject of both the cartoon and the text was diversity, a subject that is important to landscape ecology. As we know, a monoculture—an environment with no diversity—is a bad idea. The more diverse a landscape, the more resilient it is to change. Change today, in the form of climate change, is reducing species diversity, making our landscapes less resilient to the change yet to come. But the question can be put two ways:

  • How diverse is this landscape?
  • How much diversity does this landscape have?

The picture addresses the first question; the text insists upon the second. The first expresses diversity as a pattern: the second expresses it as tallies, and claims that this approach is to be preferred because it "adds some rigor." What is "rigor?" Webster's Third International defines it first as stiffness and hardness and then as exactness and precision, concluding with "see rigor mortis." Not a bad suggestion.

Numbers are indeed hard and stiff. A two is a two wherever it may be. They are excellent for describing the parts of reality that are dead stiffs. When we are seeking to understand what it means to be alive, however, we almost always dealing in patterns. Pictures communicate patterns much better than tallies do. Translating diversity into numbers may add some rigor, but in so doing removes some life. We need to be very skeptical when we hear someone defend their approach as superior because it is more rigorous. Life does not do rigor. That death’s job.

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