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In the Light of Evolution: Volume II—Biodiversity and Extinction
large segment of the public (American Museum of Natural History, 1998). In addition, there is a tendency to place greater value on the more familiar and charismatic in nature rather than recognizing the integral roles and importance of all species, even insects, worms, fungi, and microbes, in various ecosystems (Wilson, 1992; Novacek, 2007).
Both of these misperceptions clearly impede the cultivation of a sense of concern and stewardship for the planet’s eroding biodiversity. The notion that current rates of extinction are “normal” obviously prevents a focus on the urgency of the problem. Indeed, this perspective has fed an attitude, often expressed in the political arena, that action is unwarranted for something that, according to scientists, is no problem at all. A lack of appreciation for the richness and interconnectedness of diverse species, from elephants to soil bacteria, yields a distorted picture of what is really at risk. With such a narrow vision, even conservation efforts may place too much attention on a few endangered species rather than the ravaged habitats within which they live.
Evidence of Positive Public Response
However, there is also evidence the public is prepared and motivated to understand the biodiversity crisis more accurately and profoundly. Since the mid-1990s, several surveys have monitored public attitudes on biodiversity loss and biodiversity conservation. Prominent among these were the polls of Americans in 1996 and 2002 conducted by the Biodiversity Project (1996, 2002). Respondents in both polling years showed a high level of concern for the loss of species and degradation of environments. When they were given a definition for biodiversity, 47% of the respondents in 2002 (Biodiversity Project, 2002) and 41% in 1996 (Biodiversity Project, 1996) stated that stemming the loss of species was very important to them personally. In the 2002 poll, 69% stated they had a personal, and 65% said they had a moral, responsibility to protect all plant and animal life. Also, half (in 1996) or slightly more (in 2002) of the respondents strongly supported the Federal Endangered Species Act.
Another important aspect of public attitudes toward biodiversity is the high level of influence of aesthetic, ethical, patriotic, familial, and religious values in motivating a sense of responsibility for stewardship. In the 2002 Biodiversity Project poll, 64% regarded a wide variety of animals and plants as one of the most important things in their lives, and 71% felt that nature provided them with inspiration and a peace of mind. Respect for God’s work, respect for nature for its own sake, the need to provide for future generations, the appreciation of the beauty of nature, the need to maintain a balanced healthy life, and the expectation as an American citizen to protect natural resources all were regarded as “extremely