The Gospel According to Conservation Biology

By Nelson, Robert H. | Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Gospel According to Conservation Biology

Nelson, Robert H., Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly


The Society for Conservation Biology was founded in 1985 and its influential journal, Conservation Biology, was established soon thereafter in 1987. Subsequently, programs for the study of conservation biology were created at a number of leading American universities. The task of conservation biology has been to rework the goals and language of American environmentalism --at least with respect to endangered species, ecosystems, and other parts of "nature"--on a more scientific basis. The goal should now be the preservation and restoration of "biodiversity," a term coined by conservation biologists in the 1980s. If the American environment is to be restored, the field of conservation biology will be among the main sources of expert knowledge and trained personnel.

In 1992, environmental historian David Takacs--who also describes himself as a "lifelong environmentalist"--interviewed 23 leading figures in conservation biology, including Michael Soule, Reed Noss, E. O. Wilson, Thomas Lovejoy, Paul Ehrlich, and Jerry Franklin. His purpose was to explore their reasons for becoming involved in the field, the methods of conservation biology, the values reflected in its efforts, the prospects for the future, and many other matters. Takacs assembled the materials from these interviews, conducted additional interviews specifically concerned with environmental issues in Costa Rica, and in 1996 published an insightful book, The Idea of Biodiversity: Philosophies of Paradise. The book includes Takac's broader reflections on the thinking of the conservation biologists he interviewed, as well as extensive direct quotes from his interviewees.

Takacs sees the rise of conservation biology, and the new focus on a goal of biodiversity, as a reflection in part of perceived problems with earlier environmental goals, especially the wilderness ideal of protecting wild nature that is seen as little touched by human hand. By the 1980s, there was a growing awareness that pre-European human impacts on the natural world in the Americas might have been much greater than previously suspected. In Costa Rica, for example, Takacs noted that "researchers are turning up pottery shards and crop residues that point to past civilizations where until recently we had imagined only wilderness." More broadly, an environmental goal of "wilderness preservation ... is redolent of class privilege, culturally rooted, and ontologically precarious." In light of these and other concerns, by the 1980s there was a new perception that "plotting conservation around wilderness is a dubious strategy." It also had the practical liability that by then many of the wildest areas were already included in the United States in the national wilderness system and a wilderness strategy offered little justification or guidance for environmental protection of the large majority of places that would never qualify as wild.

The Notion of Biodiversity

As Takacs explains, the questioning of a wilderness strategy was one element in a broader concern among biologists and other scientists with respect to "the negative connotations the word nature holds." Nature was the subject of romantic poetry, transcendental philosophical speculations, and many other approaches that fell well short of the "scientific." Yet, science is the greatest source of authority and legitimacy in American life. If environmental goals were to gain wider public acceptance, it might be desirable to put them on a firmer scientific grounding. Indeed, this was a main purpose of elevating the goal of "biodiversity" in place of the older and now seemingly less compelling environmental language of "nature, wilderness, natural variety, endangered species, and biological diversity."

The central issue explored by Takacs in his interviews with conservation biologists was the definition of "biodiversity." An expert in ecological processes, Don Falk, considered that biodiversity takes in "ecosystem functions, community processes, genetic diversity within species, and so on. …

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