Sunday, March 16, 2014

Extinctive – a new addition to the lexicon of biodiversity science?

Much debate in science revolves around terminology – indeed, whole papers are written about specific words. A personal favorite – if only for the title – is Ontoecogenophyloconstraints by Antonovics and van Tienderen. For some reason, terminological issues seem particularly acute in the context of biodiversity science. What precisely are “ecosystem services”? What is sustainability? Tipping points? Earth system services?

As a result, we sometimes get into terminological debates at our bioGENESIS meetings – a few years ago in Cape Town, we even coined a new term “evosystem services.” This term arose from the realization that all ecosystem services are the product of organisms, and all organisms are the product of evolution. One plus one must mean that all past, present, and future ecosystem services are also EVOsystem services. This recognition is important because it makes clear the need to inject evolutionary thinking into biodiversity science, a goal that is – after all – the raison d'etre of bioGENESIS. We (mainly Dan Faith) invented this term over dinner on the edge of the Southern Ocean in Cape Town, and I can remember drawing a circle labelled “ecosystem services” surrounded and completely enveloped by another circle labelled “evosystem services”. The point was that not only are all recognized ecosystem services also evosystem services, but evolution provides many services (past, present, and future) that are not encapsulated by the usual view of ecosystem services. (We had imbibed enough to later draw another even more inclusive circle – geosystem services – and around that another circle – cosmosystem services – and around that yet another circle – theosystem services.)

Spring has sprung at Kew.
This week I attended another bioGENESIS meeting, this time at the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens in London, England – graciously hosted by Felix Forrest. And – yet again – we debated terminology, including the very same words we had debated at past meetings. This time, however, we ended in a different place. We were having dinner at a nice French restaurant (perhaps the best way to be sure of good food in England), and we started considering the meaning of the term “distinct,” which led us to contrast it with “distinctive.” In an effort to figure out how these terms differed, we started considering other words ending in “tinct” to which one could also add “ive” on the end. Instinct versus instinctive, indistinct versus indistinctive, and extinct versus extinctive. Huh? Extinctive? Is that even a word? We had never heard it before and thus reasonably assumed it did not exist in the English language.

Spring has sprung at Kew.
What might “extinctive” mean – if it were to mean anything at all? We decided it would likely mean “having the properties of being extinct without actually being extinct” – at least not yet. The term might thus apply to species that were sure to go extinct in the reasonably near future: that is, a species experiencing an “extinction debt” or “extinction in waiting”. After all, this definition seemed to fit fairly well with “instinct” versus “instinctive.” As an example, Pinta Island giant tortoises were extinctive for 40 years, right up until Lonesome George died just a few years ago. We were having a good time with this debate (at least I was) until Felix got out his smart phone and started looking up words. It turns out that the above four words are the only ones in English to end in “tinct” and, of these, extinct is the only one to which one cannot add an “ive” on the end. Cool! Oops – not true. It seems that extinctive is actually a real word (“tending or serving to extinguish or make extinct”), which presumably preempts our new definition. (Hell, while writing this, I can see that MSWord’s spell checker doesn’t even flag it. If Bill Gates says it is a word, it must be. Then again, while posting it, I see that Blogger does flag it - so Google says it isn't a word. Clash of the Titans!)

Felix showing us what might well be the world's most biodiverse square meter - the genomic DNA storage facility at Kew.
So the great debate ended in a whimper … until Dan pointed out that instinguish was definitely not a word – but should be. And so it went …

Dan demonstrating how to instinguish.

Some earlier posts about evosystem services:

The bioGENESIS crew at Kew: Luc, Felix, Geeta, Lucia, Anne-Helene, Keight, Dan, Melina, and Andrew

1 comment:

  1. So, 'assisted elimination' would be...extinctivization? (definitely not a word according to Google)


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