Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Is biodiversity valuable?

2 Comments

Coral reefThe other day a friend shared a link to a story on the importance or preserving biodiversity. I can’t find that link now, but what struck me at the time was that the value of biodiversity was simply assumed and undefended. This isn’t surprising of course, popular discourses around conservation and environmental protection continually repeat this message such that it’s hard not to just take it as read that biodiversity is important and should be preserved. But, why is biodiversity important and in what ways?

The other day a friend shared a link to a story on the importance or preserving biodiversity. I can’t find that link now, but what struck me at the time was that the value of biodiversity was simply assumed and undefended. This isn’t surprising of course, popular discourses around conservation and environmental protection continually repeat this message such that it’s hard not to just take it as read that biodiversity is important and should be preserved. But, why is biodiversity important and in what ways?

Biodiversity refers to the variety and variability of living things. But, what is it about variety and variability that is valuable?

First, it seems strange, at least to me, to think that we can create or increase value by making things less alike and/or producing more of them. Conversely, similarity and rarity don’t seem intuitively disvaluable (indeed, rarity can increase the value of many things).

Second, claiming that biodiversity is valuable leads to difficult questions. For example: do types of species matter: are a few more complex species (in terms of genetic material) more valuable in their contribution to biodiversity than a great variety and number of simple organisms? These sorts of problems cause me to question that biodiversity is valuable for its own sake.

Imagine a modern-day Dr. Moreau destroys all living creatures on an island, places a dome over the island and populates it with a new ecology of his own fiendish bioengineered creation. Imagine further that the variety and variability of the organisms that Dr. Moreau’s clone creates is greater than what had been there before. To say that the crazed doctor’s creation is potentially more valuable than the lifeforms it replaced is rather counter-intuitive (although a utilitarian would likely simply reject this intuition). But, why would whether organisms were created by man matter for the value of variety or variability?

It’s more plausible to think that biodiversity is valuable in terms of the benefits it brings for the organisms that comprise it: it instrumental value. However, there are a huge mass of complex problems that accompany this thought too. Members of ecosystems interact dynamically; they prey upon one another, compete for resources, may have varying moral value of their own and so forth. This means that the value of biodiversity will be different depending upon whether you are the one being eaten by another organism or the one doing the eating, and it will be constantly changing. Thus, is seems impossible to place a value on biodiversity that is not qualified in some way with details of the point of time it is valuable and the entity for which it is valuable. This doesn’t seem all that controversial, but it doesn’t appear to map to the ordinary way in which we talk of the importance of biodiversity. We don’t think ‘today biodiversity is valuable for clams, lions, and humans, tomorrow it may be valuable for thrushes, the flu virus, and banana trees.’ Nor does that description of the value of biodiversity appear all that interesting.

What’s more, returning to our Dr. Moreau clone above: what if not all of functions of the engineered ecosystem were fulfilled by living things? Perhaps our doctor has replaced many of the trees with carbon absorbing fakes? It would seem here that reducing the variety of living things reduces the number of potential conflicts whist preserving the instrumental value of the ecosystem to those remaining organisms. Why would that be a worse state of affairs than a greater variety of living things engaged in more competition?

The sorts of reasons given above cause me to question whether biodiversity is valuable either intrinsically (for its own sake) or instrumentally. Two ways to solve these problems would be either to adopt a speciesist ethic and value biodiversity solely in terms of its values to humans, or to deny the value of individual organisms and adopt something like Leopold’s land ethic. Neither of those two options is terribly appealing to me, so I’m initially minded to just reject the claim that biodiversity is valuable entirely. It’s certainly an interesting topic to return to.

Advertisements

Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Is biodiversity valuable?

  1. I am a biologist. I think biodiversity is extremely valuable for several reasons. First, we do not have a clue on how to engineer an enzyme, not even to change the speed or efficiency or specificity of one existing. Each organism, in particular if evolutionistically far from all the other, might contain in it’s DNA the information to get a biological richness completely out of our reach in artificial terms. Take TAQ polymerase http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taq_polymerase, or the enzymes used in the industrial processes, or the pharmaceutical relevance of several molecules of vegetable origin. We cannot accept the loss of such a richness, as it is the result of millions of years of refinement and selection in an environment where we, too, are part. This increases the chance that that biological information may relevant for our interest. Second, take the potentiality of an unknown species or of a species not yet thought to be useful for phytoremediation or as natural pest control or resistant to a new disease attacking all the other varieties (a fact true for grape, used as a graft base) . We have so much to learn that we cannot take the risk of “loosing the book”. In turn this do not means that the ecosystem needs to be huge, we can still take the needed space, but we must be sure we are not causing a loss much worse than the gain.

  2. Thanks Simon. Effectively, this is an argument that biodiversity is valuable because it’s potentially useful to us, not that there’s something valuable about it for its own sake. It also follows from your argument that the more we learn and understand about nature, the less valuable biodiversity becomes. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this kind of argument (save that it puts aside the value of biodiversity to other species), but I don’t think it’s how people ordinarily think of the value of biodiversity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s