Conservation Biology

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Biodiversity and Conservation Biology

What, exactly, is biodiversity, and what is its relationship with conservation biology? Is there a useful distinction between conventional ("natural") and designed biodiversity? And how can we meaningfully speak of a biodiversity crisis without first defining our terms.

These are some of the points discussed in a rather thought-provoking column by Brad Allenby, over at

Some choice excerpts:
To begin with, it is apparent that "biodiversity" is not a factual observation, but a cultural construction. One way to construct it is by considering only biodiversity that arises from evolutionary processes, in which case loss of "traditional" species equates to loss of biodiversity. Alternatively, one can consider only designed biodiversity, in which case gains in constructed forms of life, such as GMOs or engineered bacteria constitute gains in biodiversity. Or one could consider overall information content of biological systems of all sorts as biodiversity, in which case no one knows whether it's increasing or decreasing.
What community gets rights to define the cultural construct of biodiversity matters because the definition of the term in large part bounds public perceptions, and thus potential policy responses. Biodiversity traditionally has been defined by the conservation biology community, which by self-selection, focus and training has a strong incentive to perceive losses in evolutionary biodiversity, and little experience or interest in understanding designed biodiversity at all, except perhaps as it overlaps "natural" systems (a major reason for this is that designed biodiversity tends to be found in industrial and agricultural systems, as opposed to "natural" environments). This definition accordingly is based on the construct of “species” generated by evolved biology, and - given the continued development of the anthropogenic Earth - necessarily implies a “crisis” in biodiversity, requiring in turn strong policy measures to “preserve biodiversity”.

It's a really good read, so feel free to check it out. Just some food for thought...


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  • The problem I have with "designed biodiversity" is that firstly it doesn't increase global biodiversity as the same GM modified so-called biodiversity is replacing local biodiversity in many countries and secondly we have no clue what their impact might be on remaining local biodiversity...

    Of course biodiversity is defined by the conservation community! I would think that it is essentially a conservation biology term. Who am I to go and change the meaning of say for instance some medical terminology, just because it would suite me better if it had a wider meaning???

    I'll say no more...

    By Blogger Karen Marais, at August 07, 2006 9:11 AM  

  • Some strong feelings, I see... Anyway, I do share your passion for conserving biodiversity, and the "natural" state of things, whatever that may be.

    But the point of the article, I think, was that biodiversity is not a well-defined term (are species the issue? genes? what?). And that something so important to biology shouldn't be defined by a particular subset of biologists.

    And I'd say that it works pretty much exactly the opposite way around to what you said...conservation biology is a biodiversity term (you can only explore conservation in terms of biodiversity, whereas biodiversity is a biological concept). Biodiversity deals with the origin, persistence and extinction of lineages (or, perhaps, genetic information). Conservation biology deals with only one of those things, and that in a rather particular way.

    Ah well, at least it got you excited, and that's a good thing...

    By Blogger NcK, at August 07, 2006 10:37 AM  

  • You are right about what way round the terms fit together. The point I was trying to make was that they sort of belong together...

    I am still but a dummy in this field!

    By Blogger Karen Marais, at August 07, 2006 11:23 AM  

  • I have just been accused by my husband of getting emotionally involved... which just gets me more fired up! But he is right.

    Biodiversity is not a well defined term and the debate about who should decide what can be termed as biodiversity is probably far from over. Is this issue however worth arguing about, while more important issues are at hand??

    By Blogger Karen Marais, at August 07, 2006 7:37 PM  

  • That's the thing about conservation - it's hard NOT to be emotionally involved, one way or the other...

    The problem is convincing people that there ARE more important issues at hand...which requires a rigorous definition of terms, solid footing from which to launch constructive debate. (You can't convince them biodiversity is declining if you can't say what it is, after all!)

    And don't worry about being a dummy about this: we're all in the same boat there...

    By Blogger NcK, at August 08, 2006 7:41 PM  

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