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Biodiversity? Yes, But What Kind? A Critical Reassessment in Light of a Challenge from Microbial Ecology

… Concepts, which have proved useful for ordering things, easily assume so great an authority over us, that we forget their terrestrial origin and accept them as unalterable facts. They then become labeled as ‘conceptual necessities’, ‘a priori situations’, etc. The road to scientific [and moral] progress is frequently blocked for long periods by such errors. It is therefore not just an idle game to exercise our ability to analyze familiar concepts, and to demonstrate the conditions on which their justification and usefulness depend, and the way in which these developed […]. In this way, they are deprived of their excessive authority.

Albert Einstein, 1916 Obituary for Mach.

Abstract

Biodiversity has become one of the most important conservation values that drive our ecological management and directly inform our environmental policy. This paper highlights the dangers of strategically appropriating concepts from ecological sciences and also of uncritically inserting them into conservation debates as unqualified normative landmarks. Here, I marshal evidence from a cutting-edge research program in microbial ecology, which shows that if species richness is our major normative target, then we are faced with extraordinary ethical implications. This example challenges our well-received beliefs about biodiversity and it invites us to critically rethink the nature of this concept so that a more robust understanding of biodiversity and of its role in conservation policy could emerge.

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Notes

  1. Lennox claims that the conceptual benefit of such concepts lies in their capacity to overcome both the relativist option, which relates values to specific forms of culture and history, and the reductionist option, which reduces some medical judgments to statistical judgments (statistical outriders in case of sick people). The concept of health can be both “based on an empirical biological foundation and be evaluative” (Lennox 1995, p. 499) at the same time. There is a sense in which certain features of life provide an objective validation for a certain class of value concepts.

  2. This approach has been labeled as the hybrid approach, which is a combination of naturalism and normativism (Ereshefsky 2009). Bryan Norton calls such concepts “bridge terms” since they link social values and public policy to scientific data and theory (2008, p. 369).

  3. In their seminal work, Method in Ecology: Strategies for Conservation, Kristin Shrader-Frechette and Earl D. McCoy provide a strong critique of two foundational concepts in ecology: stability and community (1993, pp. 11–67). Their argument led them to claim “there is no biological coherent notion of “community” robust enough to ground either contemporary scientific theory in community ecology or environmental ethics” (1996, p. 59), and any environmental ethic grounded on those concepts is destined to fail. Ecologists have also shown that natural systems are typically disturbed without a natural tendency toward mature and stable states (Reice 1994). This fact certainly has a direct impact on an ecocentric ethic. As Hettinger and Throop claim, “Leopold’s dictum […] seems all too vulnerable to the charge that we may be obligating ourselves to preserve something that frequently does not exist” (2008, p. 190). In similar vein, Jamieson shows that the notion of ecosystem health, which might be useful as a rhetorical tool, has little utility as a technical term in environmental policy precisely because “there is little agreement in what health consists in or how to bring it about” (1995, p. 342).

  4. See also recent work by Santana (2014) and a recent rebuttal by Burch-Brown and Archer (2017).

  5. This is certainly Bryan Norton’s approach in his critique of Nelson’s argument for ecosystem health (Nelson 1995). Norton shows that Nelson’s argument “commits us to ‘attributing’ value to nature” (Norton 1995, p. 325), and its error lies in a commitment to an implausible view, namely that “nature has a ‘good of its own’ in some metaphysically independent sense” (Norton 1995, pp. 325–326; see also Norton 1988).

  6. A broad notion of value that accounts either for the instrumental or intrinsic value nature (in our case of the Amazon rainforest) would be sufficient to set up our argument. I do not need to take sides on which framework [economic/instrumental (Randall 1986; Maclaurin and Sterelny 2008, ch. 8) vs. intrinsic value (Rolston 2001; Callicott 1997)] provides us the best justification for the normative source of such an ecosystem. I believe that a pluralistic (additive and not competitive) view regarding the normative source of biodiversity is preferable.

  7. As Donald Maier points out in his book (2012), this imperative combines two formal ethical models: a just so and an incremental model. The goal of a just-so model is “to conserve something close what biodiversity currently exists” (p. 142). The incremental model is based on a fundamental correlation between biodiversity and its value. “If biodiversity increases, its value also increases” (p. 132) In this paper, I challenge the incremental aspects of a biodiversity.

  8. By biological respectability, I understand a combination of factors working in concert. Biodiversity, which in part is meant to act as a “total picture” of the natural world (E.O. Wilson in Takacs 1996, p. 50), has to be a definable concept. Ecologists and conservation biologist should provide us with a definition for this term, even if the definition might not be totally uncontroversial. In addition, biodiversity has to be measurable, and, as a consequence, it has to be part of theories that can make testable predictions about various natural patterns and ecosystem functioning. Lastly, a hallmark for such respectability is whether biodiversity is part of common ecological knowledge and of extended ecological research programs (Lakatos 2013).

  9. For a recent view regarding rates of extinctions, see Pimm and Raven (2000).

  10. Some claim that there is no single measure of biodiversity or that no measure satisfies the conditions of adequacy ecological sciences have demanded for (see list, Sarkar 2007, p. 394). For more details, see Ricotta (2005) and with respect to the measurability debate, see Sarkar (2006) especially the Sect. 2 (Measures of Ecological Diversity).

  11. Gaston and Spicer points out a few of the limitations of this definition: problematic definition of species and different kinds of diversity (Gaston and Spicer 2004, pp. 14–16; see also Claridge et al. 1997). Maclaurin and Sterelny raise a similar concern when they note a ‘striking fact’, namely that “evolutionary theory has been home to a long and continuing debate about the nature of species, that resulted in a profusion of species concepts” (Maclaurin and Sterelny 2008, p. 28). In the second chapter of their book on biodiversity, “Species: A modest Proposal”, Maclaurin and Sterelny show how this difficulty can be overcome by appealing to a phenomenological notion of species (See, Ibid, pp. 31–41). For a critique of Maclaurin and Sterelny’s species proposal, see Morgan (2010).

  12. For example, we could genetically tailor organisms that gain higher tolerances and capacities for adaptation to specifically dramatic environments. The rapid development of synthetic biology, with the creation of the first synthetic bacterial genome (Gibson et al. 2010) invite us to consider such technological possibilities as part of our near future.

  13. Another eloquent example of the problem of “appropriate increase” appears in studies that have focused on exotic invasive species. Dov Sax and Steven Gaines have made a strong argument against one of the most common ecological principles: predation by exotic plants drives down local biodiversity. They have shown that, when the European settlers brought exotic species to New Zealand, the native plants did not become extinct, and this process of naturalization instead of reducing biodiversity, it has led to a positive change in net species richness. I will additionally develop this example in the next section, as a paradigmatic case of how to rethink critically the policy application of the concept of biodiversity.

  14. In this paper, I assume that the importance of microbial life for biodiversity is a widely accepted fact. Skeptics should review the work of Staley and Reysenbach (2001) and Van Der Heijden et al. (2008).

  15. The Bohannan team has also confirmed the results of Jesus et al. (2009). See also Petersen et al. (2019) for a meta-analysis looking at how bacterial communities respond to land use change across the tropics.

  16. Microbiologist Bonnie L Bassler famously writes, “you may think you’ve seen everything, but in fact, most of the world is invisible to us.” (Bassler 2012, p. 67) In terms of numbers, the microbial diversity (Bacteria and Archaea) absolutely exceeds the diversity of life at the level of Eukarya. Scientists have catalogued about ~ 1.2 million of eukaryotes species, and predicted about 8.7 millions (Mora et al. 2011), whereas by 2011, microbial biologists have catalogued ~ 2, 492, 653 species and have predicted over 100 millions different species (or types) of microbes (Dykhuizen 1998).

  17. A significant conclusion of this research is to point out the specific impact of such ecosystem conversion onto microbial diversity. “The specific response we observed—an increase in alpha biodiversity and a decrease in beta diversity following environmental change” (Rodrigues et al. 2013). As Bohannan claims, “species richness is one aspect of diversity—how many types you find when you sample. But another aspect is how similar they are across space. And so we started to change our story to thinking: If we look at other aspects of diversity, is it the same? Which led us to then ask: If you compare any two cores from the pasture or the forest, on average do they share more or less of the types of the microbes present? And what we found was that in the forest, any two cores share fewer types than in the pasture. In other words each core is more different—more diverse—in the forest than in the pasture” (Bohannan 2012).

  18. As Sarkar rightly notes, “the need for justification is especially critical if we believe that these concerns deserve our attention despite equally important, if not more important, concerns we should have for improvements of the material conditions of the lives of the underprivileged” (2005, p. 2).

  19. Maclaurin and Sterelny point out also the difficulty of properly conceptualizing and finding a solution to the units-and-differences problem (2008, 20).

  20. In a recent publication, Malaterre shows that given the significance of microbial life, in addition to the units-measures difficulty, the concept faces a lower limit difficulty and the extent to which it should include microbial entities (2013). For a recent attempt to produce a unifying theory of biodiversity, see Scheffer et al. (2018).

  21. Another interesting critique of Sarkar’s approach was raised by J. Koricheva and H. Siipi [along the same lines with DeLong (1996)]. “The attempts […] to narrow the scope of the concept of biodiversity, either spatially, temporally, or with respect to the number of elements included seem to be driven by the desire to restrict the definition to those aspects which can be assessed empirically (i.e. species richness in a given locality). This approach, however, confounds definition with application, and is partly to blame for the terminological confusion surrounding the concept of biodiversity” (2004, p. 30).

  22. Cardinale et al. have produced a recent meta-analysis (2011) where they take a more nuanced view concerning the biodiversity—ecosystem functioning debate. However, as Shavit and Griesemer (2009) show, the problem of locality is pervasive in ecology and renders the replication of biodiversity surveys particularly difficult.

  23. James Brown has shown that fish also follows a similar pattern. For more details see also, Brown and Sax (2004).

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank B. Bohannan, T. Toadvine, and J. Beever for thoughtful and encouraging comments on early drafts of this manuscript.

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Morar, N. Biodiversity? Yes, But What Kind? A Critical Reassessment in Light of a Challenge from Microbial Ecology. J Agric Environ Ethics 32, 201–218 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-019-09758-3

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Keywords

  • Biodiversity
  • Microbial ecology
  • Conservation value