Skip to main content

Biodiversity is a chimera, and chimeras aren’t real

Abstract

A recent article by Burch-Brown and Archer (Biol Philos, 2017) provides compelling arguments that biodiversity is either a natural kind or a pragmatically-valid scientific entity. I call into question three of these arguments. The first argument contends that biodiversity is a Homeostatic Property Cluster (HPC). I respond that there is no plausible homeostatic mechanism that would make biodiversity an HPC natural kind. The second argument proposes that biodiversity is a multiply-realizable functional kind. I respond that there is no shared function to ground this account. The final, and strongest, argument, is that biodiversity is an ineliminable explanans and explanandum in various subdisciplines of biology. I argue that once we look at the details of the relevant research, not only does biodiversity in a broad sense not function in explanatory roles, but we must eliminate biodiversity in favor of more specific concepts in order to make sense of the leading explanations in contemporary ecology and conservation science.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. An anonymous reviewer worries that this is too weak, since my claim here is merely that biodiversity is eliminable, which doesn’t logically entail that biodiversity should necessarily be eliminated. The logical point is apt, and worth calling attention to, but the weak claim is sufficient in the context of my broader argument. The weak claim is enough to establish premise 8 of the revised eliminativist argument, which is what I take to the be point of contention between Burch-Brown and Archer and me. The reason premise 8 need not be stronger is because the appeal to practical explanatory utility is a last ditch effort to rehabilitate a scientific kind which has failed to carve nature at its joints. But such a last-ditch justification falls apart if there is an equally practical alternative which better serves the same explanatory ends, and as I argue in much of the rest of the paper, eliminativism provides just such an alternative to biodiversity.

  2. Mainly that biodiversity in the multidimensional sense isn’t objectively measurable. Even some prominent biodiversity proponents acknowledge that “there will always be some way of comparing (say) one wetland to another that will count the first as the more diverse, and another procedure that will reverse the result” (Maclaurin and Sterelny 2008: 133).

  3. Note that in this context the ecologist’s sense of the term is used, as defined in this sentence, and not the conservationist’s, for whom complementarity is a dimension of biodiversity between communities or ecosystems.

  4. Of the cited reviews, for instance, Loreau and Hector (2001) lean heavily towards complementarity, because they find that the selection effect varies in strength from system to system, and is even often negative. The more recent Cardinale et al. (2012), on the other hand, argues that complementarity and the selection effect are each 50% responsible for the biodiversity-productivity link.

  5. The definitions in this paragraph are glosses on more technical, mathematical definitions given by McCann and Justus.

  6. Specific dimensions of biodiversity, on the other hand, will usually play a role in a project of this type. We may use descriptions and measures of functional diversity in our attempts to conserve pedogenesis, for instance, or want to promote grass species richness to create resistance to overgrazing.

References

  • Agee JK (1998) The landscape ecology of western forest fire regimes. Northwest Sci 72:24

    Google Scholar 

  • Balvanera P, Pfisterer AB, Buchmann N, He JS, Nakashizuka T, Raffaelli D, Schmid B (2006) Quantifying the evidence for biodiversity effects on ecosystem functioning and services. Ecol Lett 9:1146–1156. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1461-0248.2006.00963.x

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Boyd R (1999) Kinds, complexity and multiple realization: comments on Millikan’s ‘Historical kinds and the special sciences’. Philos Stud 95:67–98. https://doi.org/10.1023/a:1004511407133

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Burch-Brown J, Archer A (2017) In Defence of biodiversity. Biol Philos

  • Cardinale BJ, Matulich KL, Hooper DU, Byrnes JE, Duffy E, Gamfeldt L, Gonzalez A (2011) The functional role of producer diversity in ecosystems. Am J Bot 98(3):572–592

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cardinale BJ, Duffy JE, Gonzalez A, Hooper DU, Perrings C, Venail P, Kinzig AP (2012) Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature 486(7401):59–67

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Beare MH, Coleman DC, Crossley Jr, DA, Hendrix PF, Odum EP (1995) A hierarchical approach to evaluating the significance of soil biodiversity to biogeochemical cycling. In: The significance and regulation of soil biodiversity, Springer, Dordrecht, pp 5–22

  • Griffiths PE (1997) What emotions really are: the problem of psychological categories. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Griffiths PE (2004) Is emotion a natural kind? In: Solomon RC (ed) Thinking about feeling. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 233–249

    Google Scholar 

  • Hillebrand H (2004) On the generality of the latitudinal diversity gradient. Am Nat 163(2):192–211

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hooper et al (2005) Effects of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning: a consensus of current knowledge. Ecol Monogr 75:3–35

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hubbell SP (2001) The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography (MPB-32) (monographs in population biology)

  • Ives AR, Carpenter SR (2007) Stability and diversity of ecosystems. Science 317(5834):58–62

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Justus J (2008) Complexity, diversity, stability. In: Sarkar S, Plutynski A (eds) A companion to the philosophy of biology. Blackwell, Malden, pp 321–350

    Google Scholar 

  • Lean CH (2017) Biodiversity realism: preserving the tree of life. Biol Philos 1–21

  • Loreau M, Hector A (2001) Partitioning selection and complementarity in biodiversity experiments. Nature 412(6842):72–76

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • MacArthur RH, Wilson EO (1963) An equilibrium theory of insular zoogeography. Evolution 17(4):373–387

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • MacArthur RH, Wilson EO (2001) The theory of island biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Mace GM, Norris K, Fitter AH (2012) Biodiversity and ecosystem services: a multilayered relationship. Trends Ecol Evol 27(1):19–26

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Machery E (2009) Doing without concepts. Oxford University Press

  • Maclaurin J (2016) Is biodiversity a natural quality? In: Garson J, Plutynski A, Sarkar S (eds) The Routledge handbook of philosophy of biodiversity. Taylor & Francis

  • Maclaurin J, Sterelny K (2008) What is biodiversity?. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Maier DS (2012) What’s so good about biodiversity. In: The International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics, 19

  • McCann KS (2000) The diversity–stability debate. Nature 405(6783):228–233

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: a framework for Assessment Island Press

  • Morar N, Toadvine T, Bohannan BJ (2015) Biodiversity at twenty-five years: revolution or red herring? Eth Policy Environ 18(1):16–29

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Polasky S, Tallis H, Reyers B (2015) Setting the bar: standards for ecosystem services. Proc Natl Acad Sci 112(24):7356–7361

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Putnam H (1967) Psychological predicates. Art Mind Relig 1:37–48

    Google Scholar 

  • Putnam H (1980) Philosophy and our mental life. Read Philos Psychol 1:134–143

    Google Scholar 

  • Santana C (2014) Save the planet: eliminate biodiversity. Biol Philos 29(6):761–780

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Santana C (2016) Biodiversity eliminativism. In: Garson J, Plutynski A, Sarkar S (eds) The Routledge handbook of philosophy of biodiversity. Taylor & Francis

  • Tilman D, Downing JA (1994) Biodiversity and stability in grasslands. Nature 367(6461):363–365

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tilman D, Lehman CL, Bristow CE (1998) Diversity-stability relationships: statistical inevitability or ecological consequence? Am Nat 151(3):277–282

    Google Scholar 

  • Tilman D, Reich PB, Knops JM (2006) Biodiversity and ecosystem stability in a decade-long grassland experiment. Nature 441(7093):629–632

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carlos Santana.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Santana, C. Biodiversity is a chimera, and chimeras aren’t real. Biol Philos 33, 15 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-018-9626-2

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-018-9626-2

Keywords

  • Biodiversity
  • Natural kinds
  • Ecology
  • Conservation
  • Philosophy of biology
  • Environmental ethics