On Biodiversity Science

Biodiversity science features heavily in articles in Science and Nature and it is a good idea to look at the accumulated wisdom to date. We can begin with the Cardinale et al. (2012) paper in Nature (“Biodiversity Loss and Its Impact on Humanity”) which gives us six consensus statements:

Consensus statement one: There is now unequivocal evidence that biodiversity loss reduces the efficiency by which ecological communities capture biologically essential resources, produce biomass, decompose and recycle biologically essential nutrients.

Consensus statement two: There is mounting evidence that biodiversity increases the stability of ecosystem functions through time.

Consensus statement three: The impact of biodiversity on any single ecosystem process is nonlinear and saturating, such that change accelerates as biodiversity loss increases.

Consensus statement four: Diverse communities are more productive because they contain key species that have a large influence on productivity, and differences in functional traits among organisms increase total resource capture.

Consensus statement five: Loss of diversity across trophic levels has the potential to influence ecosystem functions even more strongly than diversity loss within trophic levels.

Consensus statement six: Functional traits of organisms have large impacts on the magnitude of ecosystem functions, which give rise to a wide range of plausible impacts of extinction on ecosystem function.

followed by four emerging trends:

Emerging trend one: The impacts of diversity loss on ecological processes might be sufficiently large to rival the impacts of many other global drivers of environmental change.

Emerging trend two: Diversity effects grow stronger with time, and may increase at larger spatial scales.

Emerging trend three: Maintaining multiple ecosystem processes at multiple places and time requires higher levels of biodiversity than does a single process at a single place and time.

Emerging trend four: The ecological consequences of biodiversity loss can be predicted from evolutionary history.

I encourage you to read this paper and consider how well it describes a blueprint of past and future research on biodiversity. Here I offer a few thoughts on why I think it consists of a set of worrisome generalizations.

First of all every biologist would like to think that biodiversity is important. But we should consider what the equivalent statement might be for chemistry – chemicals are important. Surely this is both true and of little use, since we can never define scientifically the word ‘important’. Biodiversity is so broadly defined as to be a rather poor noun to use in scientific statements unless it is strictly defined. But you can take any kind of biodiversity measure – species number (richness) for example, and you might find that species X is a terrible weed that is not desirable for farmers but is beautiful in your home garden or useful food for butterflies. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes are not particularly desirable members of the local biological community. But let us all agree that biodiversity is important because it is an ethical belief but not a scientific statement as it stands.

If we look at the consensus statements as scientific hypotheses (I note the word ‘hypothesis’ appears only once in this article), we can ask how you could test them and what the alternative hypotheses would be. For consensus 1 for example, what would be the result of finding a community that increased productivity if certain species were lost from the system? This finding would not be viewed as contrary to consensus one because it would be said that the increased productivity was not done efficiently. It is probably best to assume these statements are not hypotheses to be tested.

As we work our way through the consensus statements, we find they are filled with weasel words that are useful in eliminating contrary evidence. Thus for consensus statement 2 we can stop at biodiversity (many definitions) and then stability (perhaps 70 different metrics) and finally ecosystem functions (of which there are many) and time (weeks?, years?, centuries?). The consensus which sounds so solid is empirically rather empty as any guide to the world.

I am left with many questions. Could not all of these consensus statements have been written 30 years ago? All of them have contrary instances that could be given from the literature, if the terms were rigorously defined. But this many not matter. Let us concede that these generalizations may be right 90% of the time. The bottom line is that we should conserve biodiversity. But this is what everybody has been saying for decades so we are no farther ahead.

The singular problem that concerns me the most is that these kinds of consensus statements are of little use to the land manager or the wildlife manager or the politician who has to make applied decisions at the local level. If we wish to arrest the decline of a particular songbird, what is the utility of these kind of statements? I have concluded that these kinds of papers about biodiversity are a kind of pablum for conservation ecologists to show that Nature and Science really are concerned about conservation issues while at the same time they devote 97% of their issues to the technological fixes that will ‘solve’ all the problems conservation biologists continually point out. As such these kinds of papers are useful statements for political ecology.

The four emerging trends are themselves worthy of another blog. They are vague ideas expressing beliefs that cannot be considered scientific hypotheses without rigorous definitions, and in their present form are almost quasi-religious statements of belief. How they might ever be tested is unclear. I particularly enjoyed the fourth emerging trend since I think that one of the evolutionary laws is that evolutionary history is exactly that – history – not a predictive map of future changes. There is a certain irony of our time that some of the world’s most prestigious evolutionary biologists are anti-religion while biodiversity scientists are trying hard to set up a new religion of biodiversity beliefs.

Cardinale, B. J.et al. 2012. Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature 486:59-67.

 

Leave a Reply