What is biodiversity and does the non-expert have a right to a say in which bits are conserved?
Following are three views. I have designated them as 1. from the expert, 2. from the technologist, and 3. for the dummy:
1. Biodiveristy for the Expert
…. Let me give you an example of the problem. I was recently involved in a government-funded project that was designed to find out how much the public values biodiversity (and hence how much they would be willing to pay to support nature reserves, or more environmentally friendly farming and so on). The problem with this is that many members of the public have virtually no understanding of what biodiversity is.
So before we could ask them how much they valued it, first we had to tell them what we, as scientists, mean by biodiversity. This is true focus group democracy and it’s crackers, because the value that the public ascribed to biodiversity was simply a reflection of how important we told them it was the minute before.
Democracy is about informed choice, but science is now so vast and complex, that no single individual could ever be well enough informed to make this level of dialogue feasible.
“What arrogance!” I hear you call, in thinking that only scientists are well-informed enough to make such important decisions. But actually that’s not the point: the nonsense of the biodiversity example is that nobody knows the answer, but there might be a correct answer. But we just don’t know enough about biodiversity to know exactly what it does yet.
It’s a bit like me asking you: how much would you pay to stop me throwing away a component from under the bonnet of your car? The answer is, it depends on the component, I guess you would value the spark plugs more highly than the lead to the seat warmer. But you are not going to identify what it is by asking 100 members of the public to guess and then taking the average, it much better to ask one mechanic to find out.
read the complete text here http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/comment/story/0,9828,1501273,00.html
2. Biodiversity for the Technologist
… for many who equate “nature” with the “Sacred” the idea of biodiversity arising from human intentionality (through biotechnology) verges on blasphemous, despite the fact that existing patterns of biodiversity already reflect human activities, and have done so for a long time.
But there is a high cost to refusing to perceive, or consider the implications of, the possibility that biodiversity is not in crisis, but in transition. If this trend is real, there are many profound consequences, from the religious and the ethical to the severely practical (e.g., how can humans purport to create anthropogenic biodiversity when we have so little knowledge of the structure and dynamics of the systems involved?). Such implications require considered thought and dialog from a number of perspectives, not just the technical.
read the complete text here http://www.greenbiz.com/news/columns_third.cfm?NewsID=27508
3. Biodiversity for Dummies
The following contribution is from a smart guy, David Ward in WA.
Planzen Annimoo Nat
“How often misused words generate misleading thoughts.”
Herbert Spencer, English Philosopher, 1820-1903
A few weeks ago, in our local shopping centre, an uncombed youth shook a tin at me. The tin was labelled Save Our Biodiversity. I asked him what he meant. He was a bit gobsmacked at my geriatric ignorance, then said “Planzen Annimoo Nat”. As an old infantryman, my hearing is not the best, so I did not ask him to say again.
When I got home, I looked in my OED. It said that biodiversity is the “diversity of plant and animal life”. The same dictionary defines diversity as “various kinds”. So we have various kinds of plants and animals, and presumably other life forms, such as fungi and bacteria. How amazing.
However, the five letter word biota includes all life forms, and, being plural, implies that there are various kinds. I wonder why the uncombed one did not save himself seven letters, by labelling his tin Save Our Biota?
As far as I can remember, the word biodiversity was popularised in the early 1990s, by Edward O. Wilson, an American biologist, with a great talent for rhetoric. I believe, however, that Professor Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician, was unimpressed by Professor Wilson’s statistics.
From further searching, it seems Professor Wilson merely shortened the term biological diversity, coined in the 1930s by the English ecologist, Sir Arthur Tansley. In the later 1990s, a Russian academician called Ghilarov entered the fray, claiming a much older history for the concept, and astutely questioning the status of biodiversity as a precise, scientific parameter. He suggested that its liberal use in recent scientific writing is often simply a bid for status or funding. Clearly, my uncombed youth was an example of the latter.
The introduction of the terms genes, species & communities is seen by some as clear evidence that this is a deep scientific debate. Those three levels exist, at least in the human mind, but what about all the other levels? We may suspect an infinite number of nested levels, or scales, of organism and process, each with its own internal diversity, and ever changing. Perhaps like an infinite set of Russian baboushka dolls, but with each doll different, and changed, each time it is unpacked. And what about the myriad interactions between organisms and processes?
For me, the interactions are a matter for hope. There lies endless potential for human enquiry. If we ever understood them all, we might no longer have any intellectual purpose in the world, as suggested by John Horgan in his book, The End of Science. Perhaps I might just as well have asked my scraggly haired friend “How long is a piece of string?”
If anyone can give me a snappy, precise, mathematical definition of biodiversity, or a precise way of measuring it, I shall be delighted. But I suspect that it is a wild goose chase. Please don’t bring poor old Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener into it. They intended their index for signals, not ecology, and I suspect would turn in their graves if they saw its naive misapplication by biologists.
In the mean time, I will stick, wherever possible, to the shorter, simpler words nature and biota. The word nature has the advantage of including the intangibles, such as silence, beauty, and awe. Various Biodiversity Conservation Acts could, with advantage, be rewritten as Nature Conservation Acts.
The word biodiversity may have its uses, but it is not a precise scientific parameter. It has, for me, been tainted by its dishonest use. Maybe I’ll stick to the colloquial, Planzen Annimoo Nat�
Copyright David Ward 2005.