UF professor uses art to highlight tie between cultural and biological diversity

April 1, 2008

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Conservationists often promote pristine wilderness as a warehouse of biological diversity, but new research findings by a University of Florida anthropologist show higher biological diversity actually exists in areas where there is more human cultural diversity.

John Richard Stepp, an associate professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, presents his findings this week in an artistically displayed scientific exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History as part of The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation’s Thirteenth Annual Symposium in New York. The symposium opens Wednesday and continues through Saturday.

Stepp and his anthropology and ecology graduate students compiled data sets globally and regionally to investigate the relationship between biological and cultural diversity. By analyzing data on human and floral diversity, Stepp found a positive correlation between the number of different plant species and the number of different types of human cultural groups.

“This research shows you can’t isolate biodiversity from cultural diversity, which is important to consider when creating future conservation plans,” Stepp said.

To effectively convey the data to the conference’s audience of policymakers, United Nations representatives and others in a visually compelling manner required the marriage of science and art. Stepp turned to the UF College of Fine Arts graphic design program, MINT, in the school of art and art history for assistance in creating 13 large maps. Each map uses colors and shapes to dynamically render a different data set.

The maps feature some of the regions showing greatest diversity, including Mesoamerica, the Amazon-Andean slope, the greater Himalayas, equatorial Africa, greater Southeast Asia/Melanesia. Stepp said sloping mountainous tropical areas are significant regions for diversity because the range of habitats presented in these areas creates different opportunities for cultural adaptations.

“Sometimes it appears humans have maintained or even created biodiversity,” Stepp said. “Human activity has created different habitats, which can allow for increased biodiversity.”

Building on research published in 2005 in the journal Mountain Research and Development, Stepp’s study used language as one example of cultural diversity.

New Guinea alone contains almost 10 percent of the world’s languages and some of the highest biodiversity in the world, he said.

“Each language represents a culture that is an experiment in what it means to be human,” Stepp said. “Coded within language is sophisticated knowledge of management and interaction with the environment.”

Stepp’s research illustrates that the single biggest predictor of how many languages are spoken in any given area is how many plant species exist in that area. The reverse is also true, he said. Biological diversity and human diversity may share a similar fate. About half of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages are endangered, he said.

Using a geographic information system, Stepp’s research group spatially correlated a number of data sets including all of the world’s languages. The researchers were able to compare this with a sophisticated database containing the distribution of the world’s vascular plant species developed by a team at the University of Bonn led by Wilhelm Barthlott. Other data used were global energy consumption patterns, road networks, population density, bioproductivity, evapotransipration, rainfall and slope. The work is part of an ongoing project funded by The Christensen Fund, based in Palo Alto, Calif.

The students in MINT primarily used Adobe Illustrator to make visual sense of the numbers. MINT director and graphic design assistant professor Connie Hwang said that tool was only one part of the project.

“It’s the innovative and brilliant minds of the students that made this project extraordinary and successful,” she said.

During the project’s three-month timeline during fall 2007, 11 MINT designers tackled the challenge of how to hold the public’s interest while they viewed one map after another. Four lead designers were in charge at the refinement stage. Designer Mason Greenewald carried the project through the production stage.

It was the first time MINT, which takes jobs for clients on and off the UF campus, had worked on a project for display in a national museum.

“Everyone was really interested in working with something informational and environmental, not only for the design, but also for its educational content and its destiny to be shown in the context of a museum for everyone to see,” Hwang said. “Not only did we consider how we could connect with and attract the general public but also how we could highlight the intellectual knowledge and research of the client.”

Stepp said the outcome is fresh and new, not gender, race, or age specific, and easy to digest and comprehend.

“The end result of the project is absolutely stunning, interesting and mesmerizing,” he said. “The MINT designers transformed simple scientific data into something intriguing and beautiful, something that will live in viewer’s mind for a long time.”