This paper is a critical assessment of the epistemological impact of the systematic quantification of nature with the accumulation of big datasets on the practice and orientation of ecological science. We examine the contents of big databases and argue that it is not just accumulated information; records are translated into digital data in a process that changes their meanings. In order to better understand what is at stake in the ‘datafication’ process, we explore the context for the emergence and quantification of biodiversity in the 1980s, along with the concept of the global environment. In tracing the origin and development of the global biodiversity information facility (GBIF) we describe big data biodiversity projects as a techno-political construction dedicated to monitoring a new object: the global diversity. We argue that, biodiversity big data became a powerful driver behind the invention of the concept of the global environment, and a way to embed ecological science in the political agenda.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Andersson, J., & Rindzevičiūtė, E. (2012). The political life of prediction. The future as a space of scientific world governance in the Cold War era. Les cahiers européens de Sciences-Po, 4, 2–25.
Aronova, E. (2015). Environmental monitoring in the making: From surveying nature’s resources to monitoring nature’s change. Historical Social Research, 40, 222–245.
Aronova, E., Baker, K. S., & Oreskes, N. (2010). Big Science and Big Data in Biology: From the international geophysical year through the international biological program to the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network, 1957–Present. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, 40, 183–224.
Balmford, A., Bennun, L., Brink, B., Cooper, D., Côté, I. M., Crane, P., et al. (2005). The Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2010 Target. Science, 307, 212–213.
Barnosky, A. D., Hadly, E. A., Bascompte, J., Berlow, J., Brown, J. H., Fortelius, M., et al. (2012). Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere. Nature, 486, 52–58.
Beck, J., Böller, M., Erhardt, A., & Schwanghart, W. (2014). Spatial bias in the GBIF database and its effect on modeling species’ geographic distributions. Ecological Informatics, 19, 10–15.
Bensaude-Vincent, B. (2009). Les vertiges de la technoscience: Façonner le monde atome par atome. Paris: La Découverte.
Bensaude-Vincent, B., Loeve, S., Nordmann, A., & Schwarz, A. (2011). Matters of interest: The objects of research in science and technoscience. Journal for General Philosophy of Science, 42, 365–383.
Bisby, F. A. (2000). The quiet revolution: Biodiversity informatics and the internet. Science, 289, 2309–2312.
Bocking, S. (2013). The ecosystem: Research and practice in North America. Web Ecology, 13, 43–47.
Bowker, G. C. (2000a). Biodiversity datadiversity. Social Studies of Science, 30, 643–683.
Bowker, G. C. (2000b). Mapping biodiversity. International Journal of Geographical Information Science, 14, 739–754.
Boyd, D., & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical Questions for Big Data. Information, Communication & Society, 15, 662–679.
Bromley, D. A. (2002). Science, technology, and politics. Technology in Society, 24, 9–26.
Butchart, S. H. M., Walpole, M., Collen, B., van Strien, A., Scharlemann, J. P. W., Almond, R. E. A., et al. (2010). Global biodiversity: Indicators of recent declines. Science, 328, 1164–1168.
Callebaut, W. (2012). Scientific perspectivism: A philosopher of science’s response to the challenge of big data biology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 43(1), 69–80.
Calude, C. S., & Longo, G. (2015). The deluge of spurious correlations in big data. In CDMTCS Research Report Series (pp. 1–13).
Chase, J. M., & Leibold, M. (2003). Ecological Niches. Linking classical and contemporary approaches: University of Chicago Press.
Chase, J. M., & Myers, J. A. (2011). Disentangling the importance of ecological niches from stochastic processes across scales. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Londonc B, Biological Sciences, 366, 2351–2363.
Clarke, G. (1954). Elements of Ecology. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons INC, Chapman & Hall LTD.
Curry, G. B., & Humphries, C. J. (2007). Biodiversity databases: Techniques, politics and applications (Vol. 485). Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.
Deans, A. R., Yoder, M. J., & Balhoff, J. P. (2012). Time to change how we describe biodiversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 27, 78–84.
Devictor, V., Clavel, J., Julliard, R., Lavergne, S., Mouillot, D., Thuiller, W., et al. (2010). Defining and measuring ecological specialization. Journal of Applied Ecology, 47, 15–25.
Edwards, J. L. (2000). Interoperability of biodiversity databases: Biodiversity information on every desktop. Science, 289, 2312–2314.
Edwards, P. (2010). A vast machine. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.
Elith, J., & Leathwick, J. R. (2009). Species distribution models: Ecological explanation and prediction across space and time. Annual Review of Ecology Evolution and Systematics, 40, 677–697.
Ellis, R., Pacha, M., & Waterton, C. (2007). Assembling nature: The social and political lives of biodiversity softwares. Lancaster.
Elton, C. (1927). Animal ecology. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
Elton, C. S. (1966). The pattern of animal communities. London: Methuen and Co Ltd.
Foucault, M. (1980). The confession of the flesh. in power/knowledge: Select interviews and other writings 1972–1977 (p. 193). New York: Pantheon Books Edition.
Greiner, W., & Lane, N. (2009). David Allan Bromley 1926—2005. National Academy of Sciences, 1–49.
Grinnell, J. (1917). The niche relationship of the California Thrasher. The Auk, 34, 427–433.
Grundmann, R., & Stehr, N. (2012). The power of scientific knowledge. From research to public policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Guisan, A., & Thuiller, W. (2005). Predicting species distribution: Offering more than simple habitat models. Ecology Letters, 8, 993–1009.
Güttler, N. R. (2011). Scaling the period eye: Oscar drude and the cartographical practice of plant geography, 1870s–1910s. Science in Context, 24, 1–41.
Hamblin, J. H. (2013). Arming mother nature: The birth of catastrophic environmentalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hutchinson, G. E. (1957). Cold spring harbor symposium. Quantitative biology. Concluding remarks, 22, 415–427.
Jax, K., Jones, C. G., & Pickett, S. T. A. (1998). The Self-Identity of Ecological Units. Oikos, 82, 253–264.
Jiménez-Valverde, A., Lobo, J. M., & Hortal, J. (2008). Not as good as they seem: The importance of concepts in species distribution modelling. Diversity and Distributions, 14, 885–890.
Kelmelis, J. A., & Snow, M. (1991). Proceedings of the U.S. Geological Survey Global Change Research Forum. Circular 1086.
Kingsland, P. S. E. (2005). The Evolution of American Ecology, 1890–2000. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kitchin, R. (2014). Big Data, new epistemologies and paradigm shifts. Big Data & Society, 1, 1–12.
Kwa, C. (2005). Local ecologies and global science: Discourses and strategies of the international geosphere-biosphere programme. Social Studies of Science, 35, 923–950.
Laney, D. (2001). 3D data management: controlling data volume, velocity, and variety. META Group Research Note 6.
Lawrence, A. (2006). ‘No personal motive?’ Volunteers, biodiversity, and the false dichotomies of participation. Ethics, Place & Environment, 9, 279–298.
Leonelli, S. (2011). Packaging small facts for re-use: Databases in model organism biology. In P. Howlett & M. Morgan (Eds.), How well do facts travel? The dissemination of reliable knwoledge (pp. 325–348). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Leonelli, S. (2014). What difference does quantity make? On the epistemology of Big Data in biology. Big Data & Society, 1(1), 2053951714534395.
Levin, S. A. (1992). The problem of pattern and scale in ecology: The Robert H. MacArthur Award Lecture. Ecology, 73, 1943.
Loh, J., Green, R. E., Ricketts, T., Lamoreux, J., Jenkins, M., Kapos, V., et al. (2005). The Living Planet Index: Using species population time series to track trends in biodiversity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological Sciences, 360, 289–295.
Maldonado, C., Molina, C. I., Zizka, A., Persson, C., Taylor, C. M., Albán, J., et al. (2015). Estimating species diversity and distribution in the era of Big Data: To what extent can we trust public databases? Global Ecology and Biogeography, 24, 973–984.
McAfee, A., & Brynjolfsson, E. (2012). Big Data. Harvard Business Review, (October), 60–68.
Michener, W. K., & Jones, M. B. (2012). Ecoinformatics: supporting ecology as a data-intensive science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 27, 85–93.
Müller-Wille, S. (2015). How the great chain of being fell apart: Diversity in natural history 1758–1859. THEMA La Revue Des Musées de La Civilisation, 2, 85–95.
OECD. (1993). Megascience and its background. Paris: OECD.
OECD. (1999). Final report of the OECD megascience forum.Working group on biological informatics. OECD: Paris.
OECD. (2003). OECD Environmental Indicators. Development, Measurement and Use. OECD Reference paper (Vol. 51).
Pielke, R., & Klein, R. A. (2010). Presidential Science Advisors: perspectives and reflections on science, policy and politics. New York: Springer.
Ratchford, J. T., & Colombo, U. (1996). Megascience. UNESCO World science report.
Sarkar, I. N. (2009). Biodiversity informatics: The emergence of a field. BMC Bioinformatics, 10(Suppl 1), 1–2.
Sarrazin, F., & Lecomte, J. (2016). Evolution in the Anthropocene. Science, 351, 922–923.
Schulp, C. J. E., Thuiller, W., & Verburg, P. H. (2014). Wild food in Europe: A synthesis of knowledge and data of terrestrial wild food as an ecosystem service. Ecological Economics, 105, 292–305.
Shavit, A., & Griesemer, J. (2011). Transforming objects into data: how minute technicalities of recording ‘species location’ entrench a basic challenge for biodiversity. In M. Carrier & A. Nordmann (Eds.), Science in the context of application (pp. 169–193). New York: Springer.
Slota, S., & Bowker, G. C. (2015). On the value of ‘useless data’: Infrastructures, biodiversity, and policy. iConference 2015 Proceedings. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/73663. Accessed 5 Sep 2016.
Soberón, J., & Peterson, A. T. (2004). Biodiversity informatics: managing and applying primary biodiversity data. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological Sciences, 359, 689–698.
Stevens, H. (2013). Life out of sequence—A data-driven history of bioinformatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Strasser, B. J. (2012). Data-driven sciences: From wonder cabinets to electronic databases. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 43, 85–87.
Takacs, D. (1996). The Idea of Biodiversity: Philosophies of Paradise. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Turnhout, E., & Boonman-berson, S. (2011). Databases, scaling practices, and the globalization of biodiversity. Ecology and Society, 16(1), 35.
Turnhout, E., Dewulf, A., & Hulme, M. (2016). What does policy-relevant global environmental knowledge do? The cases of climate and biodiversity. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 18, 65–72.
Turnhout, E., Neves, K., & De Lijster, E. (2014). ‘Measurementality’ in biodiversity governance: Knowledge, transparency, and the intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services (ipbes). Environment and Planning A, 46, 581–597.
Watson, R. T. (2005). Turning science into policy: Challenges and experiences from the science-policy interface. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological Sciences, 360, 471–477.
Wilson, E. O. (1985). The biological diversity crisis. BioScience, 35, 700–706.
Wilson, E. O. (1988). Biodiversity. (N. A. of Science, Ed.).
We would like to thank three anaymous reviewers and Staffan Müeller-Wille for their very constructive comments and suggestions on earlier version of this paper.
About this article
Cite this article
Devictor, V., Bensaude-Vincent, B. From ecological records to big data: the invention of global biodiversity. HPLS 38, 13 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-016-0113-2
- Big data