Which Biodiversity Definition for Biodiversity Conservation?

I&D Project. Ref. PTDC/IVC-HFC/1817/2014

PI: elena casetta


The Idea of BIODECON

Since the end of the 1980s, the biodiversity crisis has risen up the policy agenda. Two main ideas move BIODECON. The first is that philosophy—in particular philosophy of biology, ontology, and semantics—can offer a substantial contribution to understanding and defining biodiversity. The second is that improving the dialogue between scientists and philosophers on the topics of biodiversity composition, evaluation, and conservation can help in building the necessary links between biodiversity experts and society at large.


Philosophy of Biodiversity

The variety of life forms has always been a subject of philosophical reflection; nevertheless, biodiversity as it is conceived today seems to mean something peculiar, requiring a tailored philosophical analysis. Indeed, the term “biodiversity” was coined only in 1985 to express a politically-laden and ecologically-centered concept. In a way, biodiversity originates with its own crisis, as something to be preserved. However, despite all the events and actions dedicated to biodiversity conservation, establishing appropriate and effective policies is an extremely complex task, calling for detailed analysis. In particular, while the measurement of diversity and the comparative evaluation of various measuring methods has been at the center of a huge amount of studies, relatively little attention has been paid to the concept of biodiversity itself. How is “biodiversity” defined? And what is meant by particular definitions? Strange as this could seem, at present there is no agreement on a definition of “biodiversity”: in his review of the relevant literature from 1976 to 1996, Don C. DeLong lists no less than 85 definitions. As a matter of fact, the absence of a unified definition, not biased toward a particular discipline, constitutes an obstacle to biodiversity conservation for at least two reasons. On the one hand, the crisis cannot be handled without the effective communication and cooperation among the different actors involved. On the other hand, if biodiversity is defined in fundamentally different ways, agreement on strategies for biodiversity conservation may be gravely impaired.

Not only biodiversity, but also the main concepts playing a leading role in conservation actions—that is, species, habitat and ecosystems, suffer from the lack of an unambiguous understanding. In the case of the term “species”, we are faced by the so-called “species problem”, namely the difficulty of being able to unambiguously define, identify and, thus, count biological species, while the term “ecosystem” is “about the worst-defined in the ecological literature” (as Sarkar noticed in 2002).

Philosophy can help in providing the guidelines and the theoretical instruments required to proceed towards a definition and a conceptual clarification of biodiversity in its connection with the notions of species, habitats, and ecosystem. Three philosophical disciplines are involved in BIODECON. First, semantics, which traditionally elaborates theories of meaning and definition. Secondly, ontology, which enquiries about the nature of the entities posited in a particular scientific field. And, thirdly, philosophy of biology, whose enquiry concerns the philosophical aspects of biological research.


The aim of BIODECON and its societal impact

The main challenge of BIODECON is to put forward the formal, material, and sociopolitical constraints that a definition and, more generally, a scientific understanding of biodiversity should satisfy in order to be effective in conservation actions. In order to achieve this aim, both the relation between the concept of biodiversity and the concepts of species, habitat and ecosystem, as well as the relation between different understandings of the term “biodiversity”—in particular, the scientific and the commonsensical one—in the general framework of biodiversity indicators, will be analyzed. This project can be thought as being part of a rather new philosophical field called “Philosophy of Biodiversity”, and it is targeted to provide the different actors involved in biodiversity conservation with conceptual instruments aimed at delivering more effective policies to face the biodiversity crisis.

Facing the biodiversity crisis is not only a scientific challenge but also, and mainly, a societal one. Effective conservation policies need the engagement of several actors, including scientists, decision makers, governments, jurists, policy makers, land users, as well as the general public. Two subjects, in particular, must be put into a more effective communication, namely scientists on the one hand and non-expert people on the other. Thanks to both the cooperation between biologists and philosophers and the strong effort devoted to explore the commonsensical image of biodiversity, we envisage that the results of BIODECON will be of practical help in the construction of more effective conservation strategies.


The Objectives of BIODECON

Main Objectives

  • To put forward the formal and material constraints that a definition of biodiversity should satisfy in order to be effective in conservation actions
  • To relate these constraints with conservation policies, by taking into account both the scientific and societal challenges implied in conserving biodiversity.


Intermediate Challenges

  • To put forward the material criteria that a definition of biodiversity should satisfy in order to be a suitable one for more effective conservation policies (Task 1)
  • To put forward the formal criteria that a definition of biodiversity should satisfy in order to be suitable for more effective conservation policies (Task 2)
  • To explore a new approach to indicators that allows to take into account both the scientific and the commonsensical understanding of biodiversity (Task 3)
  • To explore the commonsensical understanding of biodiversity in order to better engage the general public in conservation efforts and to improve communication between science and society (Task 4)
  • To organize a series of events at—and in collaboration with—the Natural Museum of Natural History of Lisbon to inform the general public about biodiversity, particularly the practical and conceptual challenges posed by its conservation (Task 5).