Pretty and part of the problem

Humans tend to be very visual creatures. We like to be able to see things and are often uncomfortable thinking in the abstract. When confronted with new things, we lean on our experience to interpret new data and decide whether we trust it.

When it comes to the living world around us, diversity is often in the eye of the beholder. Ask anyone on the street to name 10 different organisms and most would probably rattle off a list of mammals. Maybe a couple land plants. But I would bet my life savings* that 99.9% of the responses would be macroscopic organisms and the 0.1% would be someone thinking how much anti-bacterial stuff we use and perhaps put that link together.

And that's how diagrams like this get made (Click to enlargify):


It's a pretty image made by Leonard Eisenberg that was highlighted in a Business Insider article this week, entitled "This awesome graphic of all lifeforms will make you feel tiny". I get the point, which is to emphasize what a small niche we humans exist in over the scale of life. But the absurdly massive emphasis on animals does a disservice to the very intention of the graphic.

I'm not even going to get into the issues of how extinct lineages were drawn or decided in cases outside the animals, I assume there's some "artistic license" in that part. However, what's lost in that unlabeled section where the "Eukaryotes" label was slapped in, dwarfs everything to the right of it. Check out the Tara project data that just came out in Science (summary here, data paper here, all paywalled because Science) where they estimate ~150,000 planktonic species. And that's *just* the ocean. The vast majority of those don't even show up on diagrams like the one above, because we popular science largely ignores their existence, thus the public remains unaware.

It's unfortunate, because the effects of microbial eukaryotes on human health (e.g. malaria), food (e.g. oomycetes and fungal pathogens) and environment (e.g. harmful algal blooms) are enormous.

*Hahahaha, I know, we're not talking high stakes betting here.

4 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    Yeah, and to make it worse none of the bacteria even have examples named, the way the other groups do. Maybe a little "Salmonella", "E coli" and "C difficile" would help jog the memory..

  • becca says:

    I have an undergrad degree in micro from UIUC and I can't even name an archaea off the top of my head other than Methanococcus jannaschii (and wouldn't have been able to spell it without the google).

    The 10 organisms I've dealt with most in my research...
    Escherichia coli
    Pasteurella multocida
    Schistosoma mansoni
    Homo sapiens
    Mus musculus
    Rattus rattus
    Anopheles gambiae
    Plasmodium falciparum
    Listeria monocytogenes
    Staphylococus aureus

    But I recognize I'm the 0.1% here.

  • Yeah, I would count you as an outlier among the general public.

  • chall says:

    yes, that is one good looking picture! And yes, it's the perspective that is important, more to the world than big mammals in front of us all the time. I

    I too would automatically think of the microbes around us (being a microbiologist by training). I would hope that
    Saccharomyces cerevisiae would be more famous among people - considering the extensive use for bread, beer and wine 🙂 As for Archea.... I've relegated them to "extremeophils" in my head and don't remember too many species names anymore.

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