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ENVS re-examinines biodiversity

The concept of biodiversity has held sway as a core tenet of ecology and conservation for a quarter century. As a companion to this milestone, an ENVS-sponsored seminar series entitled Biodiversity at Twenty-Five is examining not only the principle’s scientific value, but its role within conservation ethics. Three ENVS faculty—Brendan Bohannan, Nicolae Morar and Ted Toadvine—are serving as the series’ key organizers, and with varied expertise in both biology and philosophy, they aim to bring science and the humanities into conversation with one another.


“The concept of biodiversity has a very interesting story,” explains Morar. “Probably one of the first times it was used was in 1985 by W. G. Rosen, and subsequently, it appeared in the proceedings of a 1986 conference (National Forum on BioDiversity) at the Smithsonian with a number of ecologists. However, from the beginning it wasn’t just a scientific principle. Ecologists in interviews said things like ‘the loss of biodiversity is a threat to humanity next to thermonuclear war.’ The message wasn’t just scientific, but significantly more value-laden.”

Morar finds this troubling. As an ethicist, he is keenly aware of the messy and often competing priorities that influence value debates, and he notes that “if we’re using concepts [like biodiversity] borrowed from the sciences, we often assume in a way that they’re carrying objectivity. I feel that’s dangerous, to make value debates look as if they can be scientifically solved. Scientists can tell us what reality is, but they cannot tell us what reality should be.”

A central goal of Biodiversity at Twenty-Five is therefore to disentangle scientific principles from ethical values, and to do so through interdisciplinary exchanges. The first guest of the series, Donald Maier, spoke in November (video available here) and drew on his methods as a philosopher to question the value of biodiversity as an ethical framework for conservation. On March 12 the series will feature a prominent biologist, David Hooper, whose research investigates biodiversity and ecosystem functioning; in May it welcomes Kim Sterelny, who according to Morar “is one of the most interesting philosophers trying to think about ways that biodiversity does work both descriptively and prescriptively.”

The series has so far received an enthusiastic response on campus. The well-respected blog Biodiverse Perspectives recently published two articles written by UO PhD students, including ENVS’s Tim Christion Myers and IEE’s Lorien Reynolds, about their response to Donald Maier’s talk in November (read more here). Morar has also been excited to see faculty from multiple disciplines engaging with the series, and notes in particular the number of scientists who attended Maier’s presentation: “you don’t do science in a vacuum, and scientists benefit from being exposed to ethical perspectives and philosophical discussion.”

Looking forward, he, Bohannan and Toadvine are also interested to see how David Hooper can bring those focused in the humanities into a discussion about biodiversity’s scientific grounding. The discipline of ecology has traditionally held that increased biodiversity leads to increased ecosystem functioning. However, research into the topic is as important as ever: “right now,” Morar explains, “the link between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning may look like an ecological truth, but it’s probably not as stable or certain as we believe.”

Learn more about biodiversity and help us cultivate discussion! Details on Biodiversity at Twenty-Five can be found here, including specifics on the time and location of Donald Hooper’s talk on March 12 and Kim Sterelny’s talk in May, 2014.