Scientists often use war metaphors to describe invasion biology and their efforts to control and prevent invasions. Larson (2005) argues that militaristic language is hurting efforts to manage invasive species because it leads to inaccurate views, social misunderstanding, xenophobia, loss of credibility, and counterproductive conservation strategies. However, his arguments do not make sense in the context of most invasive species.

For example, I have found several examples of war-like language in my own writing. In a post on miconia, a South American plant that is invading the Hawaiian Islands, I state, “Currently, over a quarter of Tahiti’s native species are threatened with extinction as a direct result of the miconia invasion” (Finn, 2011). In the post, I also use the words “takeover,” “kill,” and “eradication.” Though these words call to mind a fight against a threatening enemy, they do not exaggerate the situation. Indeed, the people of Hawaii have referred to miconia as the “purple plague” and the “green cancer.” In the context of the miconia invasion, combative language evokes an appropriate reaction to the devastating plant.

There are flaws in each of Larson’s arguments. First, he argues that militaristic language “leads to an inaccurate view of invasive species.” However, describing an invasive species in militaristic terms does not prevent a nuanced understanding of invasive species, including their potential benefits and connections to humans that caused the invasion. Contrary to Larson’s assumptions, a militaristic approach to fixing the problem of invasive species does not preclude the placement of blame on humans. In fact, painting over invasive species with a kinder brush could lead to a misconception that invasive species are a natural part of human life and cannot be avoided.

Second, Larson claims that militaristic language “contributes to social misunderstanding, charges of xenophobia, and loss of scientific credibility.” In reality, most references to invasive species are in regards to a particular species, rather than to invasive species in general (Bossenbroek et al., 2005). Beneficial species are usually not referred to with unnecessary militaristic language. Therefore, as long as readers do not generalize specific cases to the whole field of invasive species, there should be no harm in using militaristic language if the situation merits it. Additionally, for legitimate articles, charges of xenophobia stem from reader, not the scientists. Good scientific articles reference only the invasive species in question, not irrelevant information from that species’ home. It is illogical for a reader to assume an article is attacking the people from a specific location when, in reality, it targets a harmful species. Larson also argues that the war metaphor could lead to a loss of scientific credibility if it is not used discriminatingly. In any scientific pursuit, a statement that is applied incorrectly could cause the field to lose credibility. As long as invasive species remain a significant threat, the appropriate use of forceful language should not cause a loss of credibility.

Finally, he argues that combative language “reinforces the militaristic patterns of thought that are counterproductive for conservation.” Larson claims militaristic language creates a larger association between invasion biology and politics. This association is not necessarily counterproductive. More legislation needs to be enacted to successfully control existing invaders and to prevent future invasions. Furthermore, Larson’s examples demonstrating “polarization” with regards to invasive species reference opposition to control methods. Control methods often have opponents, but this opposition should not be blamed on the language in the literature.

Alternative language to war metaphors could understate the great damage that invasive species are capable of, thereby decreasing efforts to control and prevent their spread. We cannot afford to passively accept the presence of invasive species.  Combative language may be the only way to effectively convey the gravity of some biological invasions and the need to prevent and fight their spread.

Bossenbroek, J.M., McNukty, J., and R.P. Keller. 2005. Can ecologists heat up the discussion on invasive species risk? Risk Analysis 25: 1595-1597.

Finn, C.B. 2011. Miconia: the purple plague. <http://sites.duke.edu/writing20_12_s2011/2011/01/23/miconia-the-purple-plague/>

Larson, B.M.H 2005. The war of the roses: demilitarizing invasion biology. Fronteirs in Ecology and the Environment 3: 495-500.



3 Responses to “Militaristic language: a necessary war against invasive species”

  1.   Scott Valentine Says:

    I wonder when Larson talks about the effects the “front” against invasive species on local peoples, how much is too much? Surely turning an area into a desert in order to only allow native species to grow back is overkill. After all, the main reason we are trying to preserve biodiversity through native species is for the good of humankind. When does the threat it poses and the risk we take when we try to eradicate them become overbalanced?

  2.   Marian Keegan Says:

    Your blog reads like a well-developed legal brief. Good for court.

  3.   Steven Ortman Says:

    Militaristic language used to describe invasive species may have advantages as well as disadvantages. Ultimately, the scientist (researchers) conducting the study and preparing the paper should avoid bias in describing the invasive species to eliminate slants for the reader of the article. Describing the species for what is it naturally and in detail will allow the reader to gather information of their own to make the call to support or refute the data displayed without a forceful persuasion. Words such as: attacker, killer, corrupt – may mislead the reader to agree/support based on emotions that are evoked about the topic of that particular invader; in turn, making a call for action on behalf of the reader but may be misconstrued. In comparison the invasive species should be defined for its: behavior, effects on the ecosystem noted adequately, and damage that has been done (e.g., to other organisms, waterways, soil). As a result, militaristic language affects the overall perceived tone of researcher that will impact reader more negatively; feeling as if though the data of the research is skewed only to support their cause. Not what is actually true of that particular invasive species. Likewise, invasive species may be a problem in ecosystems that vary widely; however, not all may be completely as harmful as we believe they are. We need to focus on for what they are and not make them out to be something that they are not.

    Steven Ortman

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