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Commentary titled “We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution.” He wrote: “The preservation of a species that we helped to kill, but are not directly dependent on, serves to release our guilt, but little more.”

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Firon’s approach challenged the decades-old idea that biodiversity is a good thing – that humans should strive to preserve all life forms on Earth and their interconnectedness within ecosystems. This prompted the scientist and author Carl Safina to mount an impassioned defense of biodiversity, calling Peyron’s position “conceptually confused” and containing “jarring statements”. Safina’s most trenchant rebuke was that disregarding biodiversity hurts environmental conversations. “It’s like answering ‘Black Lives Matter’ with ‘All Lives Matter,'” he wrote. “It’s a way of deliberately missing the point.”

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The Nobel Prize winners jointly signed additional rebuttals. Professors blogged long meditations on why endangered species should be saved. There have been scientists in the past who have questioned the over-focus on saving species, though none as publicly and widely as Piron. Josh Schimmel, an ecologist at the University of Santa Barbara, wrote: “Remember, you’re a scientist—it’s not your job to be right. It’s your job to be thoughtful, careful, and analytical.” Peyron declined a request to comment for this story.

Ginger Ellington, a landscape ecologist and professor at George Washington University who follows the scientific debate around “biodiversity,” says this scientific backlash reflects a growing conflict over the importance of biodiversity and species loss.

The most common way to measure biodiversity is to count the number of species in a particular place, also known as “species richness”. But critics question the usefulness of this number and argue that the concept has always been vague, even to scientists, like “a new linguistic bottle for the wine of old ideas.”

A handful of scientists want to do away with the term biodiversity entirely – and have been trying to do so since the late 1990s. The concept, they say, is difficult to quantify, difficult to track around the world over time, and is in fact not indicative of what people generally consider a “healthy” ecosystem. (Scientists are generally reluctant to describe ecosystems in terms of “healthy” or “unhealthy,” which are value judgments.)

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Last year, the United Nations reported that the world failed to meet even one of the key biodiversity conservation goals it set for itself in 2010. In the face of accelerating species and habitat loss, countries are now pledging to protect 30 percent of land and water by 2030. This fall, 193 countries are set to participate in the virtual convention on biodiversity to formulate a plan to stop the loss of biodiversity. (A draft of that plan was released last month.) In the US, the Biden administration has proposed its own approach to nature conservation. Meanwhile, a coronavirus pandemic that may have started in animals reminds us that we are fundamentally connected to the animals in these critical habitats.

Against this background, a new generation of scientists is taking up the debate about what to do about “biodiversity” itself – the scientific concept, the popular understanding of it, and in fact the word itself. As Ellington said: “There’s just a lot of drama.”

Before there was biodiversity, there was biodiversity. A key moment in the evolution of the word came at the National Forum on Biological Diversity, held at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academy of Sciences, in 1986. Among the speakers were Jared Diamond, who later wrote

Diamond Wilson—along with seven other white male scientists in attendance—dubbed themselves the “Earth Club” and held a press conference, telling reporters that biodiversity loss was “the second greatest threat to civilization.” the first one? Thermonuclear war.

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Few women scientists or non-Western experts were featured. And not everyone felt comfortable crowning biodiversity as a scientific silver bullet, for that matter. One news item from the time quoted the biologist Dan Janzen, who said in the forum that “the number of species should not be used as the only criterion for marking an area for conservation.” Janzen later called the forum “an explicit political event” and said the word biodiversity “entered this system at this point in time on purpose.”

Still, the forum attracted 14,000 participants in person. Another 10,000 watched a live “phone call” of key panelists broadcast around the world. “BioDiversity: The Videotape,” a campy VHS tape of the conference call with wildlife footage, is sold out. The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Time all covered the event, marking “the first time that biological diversity . . . received such wide public airing,” a December 1986 article in the journal

I mentioned The forum not only streamlined the term—thanks to biologist Walter Rosen’s suggestion—but brought the buzzword to the fore, as the increasing rate of global species extinctions gained both name and urgency. “The biodiversity crisis,” Wilson said at the forum, “is a real crisis.”

Against the odds, the idea of ​​biodiversity has spread outside of science and around the world. “I would liken the ‘biodiversity’ market penetration to Madonna,” said Stuart Pym, a conservation biologist at Duke University.

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Pym witnessed the sudden use of the word in the 1980s as a young associate professor. Before that, Pim had no simple name for the kind of research he was doing—now called conservation biology—and, more problematically, no term for what he was measuring in the field. And so biodiversity “hit several things at the same time,” he said. “It’s easy to popularize, it captures people’s imaginations, and it’s scientifically reliable.”

Three ecologists shaped “biodiversity” into the kind of science that goes mainstream, according to Pym. Thomas Lovejoy coined the term “biodiversity” in the 1980s. Elliot Nord defined it as the diversity of genes, species and ecosystems in a given area. Wilson, who initially considered the contraction biodiversity “too flashy,” eventually popularized the word. In 1992, the United Nations codified the word biodiversity—and the Nordic definition—into the Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty.

Biodiversity was thus created to capture two concepts: a world teeming with wildlife, and the political problem of stopping extinction. The idea has become a “force” capable of influencing global society, as climate and environmental law expert David Takacs wrote in his 1996 book

. “It is difficult to distinguish between biological diversity, a socially constructed idea, and biological diversity, some concrete phenomena,” Takacs wrote.

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But over the years, biodiversity has come to mean a lot to different people – from “native species” to “wild” to “natural balance” to just a “fancy word for nature”, according to research into public opinion in Scotland. The researcher R.A. Lautenschlager, in a 1997 scientific paper titled “Biodiversity is Dead,” put it more bluntly: “Biodiversity has become so inclusive that it has become meaningless.”

Ellington has seen colleagues try to address these kinds of questions in public, and their answers, she says, tend to be misinterpreted. “We have to be careful what we say,” she said.

To unpack this question in her college courses, Ellington—who sees biodiversity as “diverse”—passes out bags of mixed candy to her students, illustrating a key point: “The bags show that not all species play the same role in an ecosystem,” she said. . Certain species, such as oysters, make a major contribution to the ecosystem, and their disappearance would threaten everything else. “The problem is that we still don’t know what functions most species actually provide,” she said.

Scientists in today’s “save all species” debate disagree about where science ends, and where the subjective idea of ​​right and wrong begins. In this sense, debates about biodiversity may end up being debates about ethics, implicit human values ​​and that their ecological knowledge is important.

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“Does every gender matter?” asked Mark Welland, a plant ecologist at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada. “You can’t even give an answer unless you say, important

The late biologist Michael Soule, “the father of conservation biology,” was unequivocal that biodiversity is good—though its goodness, he wrote, “cannot be tested or proven.”

But in specific places, biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake is not necessarily good. On islands, for example, plant diversity generally increases as non-native species arrive; Some rare island plant species may become extinct as a result, but not always. Biodiversity may also be the wrong lens in ecosystems that were not diverse to begin with, such as boreal forests near the Arctic, which have low numbers of species that rarely face extinction even in the face of logging.

A glow above the wind-shaped trees of the boreal subarctic forest at the Churchill North Study Center, March 18, 2020. Alan Dyer/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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Many scientists recognize biodiversity as an imperfect measure. The total number of species, and how it changes, does not capture all the ways in which humans and other forces change landscapes. “‘More biodiversity’ is

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