Animals are mentioned less in novels than before mid-19th century reflecting a disconnect with nature

It is a troubling picture: a gradual decrease in awareness of nature and biodiversity since about the middle of the 19th century. It indicates a gradual disconnect from nature which I would suggest is a major reason why the planet is in the state it is currently in with global warming. It appears that animals are being written out of novels according to researchers who examined 16,000 works by 4,000 authors. They looked at works over 300 years and they concluded that gradually people have become disconnected from nature.

Animals written out of novels reflecting a disconnet with nature

Animals written out of novels reflecting a disconnect with nature. Image: Gabriele Rada/iDiv

The team from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig, searched Project Gutenberg which is an online collection of 60,000 mainly English versions of Western works of fiction.

They combed through texts ranging from Goethe to Edith Nesbit and Victor Hugo from 1705-1969 looking for the names of all kinds of living things using a list of 240,000 words. Their research published in People and Nature showed that the density, variety and frequency of labels for animals and plants rose up until the middle of the 19th century but then it declined steadily.

After 1835, authors had a tendency to use less specific terms regarding species such as using the word “tree” instead of specifying the species such as “oak”. The study’s senior author, Professor Christian Wirth said: “I think that we can only halt the loss of biodiversity by a radical change in awareness”.

The professor said that:

“The real biodiversity crisis seems to be closely linked to a conceptual crisis. We see that, starting with the dawn of industrialisation, both crises run in parallel, and we assume they are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. I think that we can only halt the loss of biodiversity by means of a radical change in awareness. Our methods can detect whether policy programmes, crises or positive examples make biodiversity more relevant to us and present in our thoughts. Today, in addition to books, social media could also be very enlightening.”

Comment: From personal experience, is quite clear to me that people are indeed becoming disconnected from nature. Many of my neighbours want to concrete over their back garden, for example. Wild animals annoy them and they regard them as pests. They want to remove nature from their world. This is not a universal attitude but I see too much of it. Conversely, I love nature on my doorstep. It is very healing emotionally to people to be connected to nature. This is why doctors say that people with depression should go for a 60-minute walk in a park every day. It is a way of connecting with nature as well as exercising. I do this and I benefit from it. There also appears to be a general viewpoint that humankind needs to control and dominate nature rather than live within it and enjoy it. This modern attitude is destructive of the planet and of the people who inhabit it.


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