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Biodiversity is a chimera, and chimeras aren’t real


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.

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  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.


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Santana, C. Biodiversity is a chimera, and chimeras aren’t real. Biol Philos 33, 15 (2018).

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