Biodiversity Is Always a Goal, Right?

Apparently not. Consider this interesting passage from The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity, by James Lovelock:

Stable unchanging climates lasting for several thousand years tend to reduce diversity, but when the climate changes to either hotter or colder by a small amount the first response is an increase in biodiversity. This is because the new conditions give rare species a chance to flourish while the established ones have not had time to decline … [I]t is important to keep in mind that biodiversity and environmental quality are not simply proportional … So rich biodiversity is not necessarily something highly desirable and to be preserved at all costs.

This is a very different view of biodiversity than one gleans from most sources, and keep in mind that this is not the view of some nature-hater. Lovelock is the renowned British climate scientist who refers to himself as “a planetary physician,” bent on stopping humans from killing the Earth.

At the very least, the takeaway here is that the push and pull of evolution is endlessly complex — and, of course, endlessly fascinating.

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  1. Tom Rooney says:

    The information given by Lovelock in the quote lacks a factual basis. There is no compelling published scientific literature demonstrating declines in diversity over thousands of years (presumably the number of species globally?–Lovelock lacks precision here). There is evidence that speciation (the evolution of new species) can increase during periods of climatic change over thousands of years, but there is also evidence that extinction rates are elevated during these periods.

    I would put Lovelock into the camp of nature-hater (although he is a lover of the environment–the two are not the same). He would gladly poison marine biodiversity to stabilize the climate.

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  2. MikeM says:

    I agree with Chris Dudley’s post. I don’t think this premise holds water, or is taken out of context. There is no way species evolve or adapt at a faster rate on average than they die off on average. Possibly under certain conditions in some ecosystems this would be true. Maybe Lovelock is presenting that these conditions exists.

    He is right about proportionality, and the notion that biodiversity may come at costs that are too high (for us), under these certain conditions. But let’s not imply that global climate change is what causes biodiversity, because I can’t imagine that’s true, at least not in the shorter term.

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  3. SP says:

    Re Comment #6:

    The notion of counting species is completely off-base: species classification, to paraphrase Charles Darwin, is an arbitrary, manually-curated process, not a well-defined systematic methodology. The genomes of two closely-linked varieties of the same species (say, 2 inbred lines of maize) have already been shown to be less similar than the DNA sequence of two species in different orders (say, humans and mice). Because species classification is such an inexact, laborious process, it’s a lot easier to measure the extinction of existing species than to regard the appearance of new forms as species.

    Darwin is more likely to be aligned with Lovelock’s notion of an ecosystem’s biodiversity: its ability to sustain highly divergent (read:rare) forms and to promote their production.

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  4. frankenduf says:

    i think the tongue-in-cheek title confuses the functional argument with the ethical one- that is, the functional argument on biodiversity will analyze presumably on utilitarian grounds, whereas an animal rights activist would indeed argue that biodiversity is always an a priori ethical goal

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  5. Chad Bergeron says:

    Darwin (Happy 200th Birthday!) understood this, and also other things about the process of evolution. For instance, evolution doesn’t always lead towards increased complexity of organisms, it just tends that way.

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  6. says:

    The truth of Lovelock’s point depends on how “biodiversity” is measured. Consider the sentence

    “This is because the new conditions give rare species a chance to flourish while the established ones have not had time to decline.”

    According to Lovelock, this flourishing of rare species represents an increase in biodiversity. But no new species are being created in this scenario: the overall species count is constant. The only thing changing is the distribution of the number of individuals per species.

    Many enviornmentalists have observed that stable ecosystems have several dominant species but many more minor species waiting to emerge if the environment changes. What ought to worry us now is that many of these minor “backup” species may be threatened with extinction, robbing us of a plan “B” in case of climate change or other environmental disaster.

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  7. kdg says:

    I’m reaching back a bit to biology classes long ago taken, but isn’t the fear of reducing biodiversity bigger than just that reduction’s impact on us? I think that biodiversity insures that, in some catastrophic event, there is enough variance in life forms that some will survive and continue, insuring the continuance of life. Like having a forest with many types of trees and plants insures that when a conifer beetle comes through and kills all the pines, there are other trees and plants that maintain the habitat in a now-modified form. One fear is that there isn’t enough variance in human life to insure our survival should such an event occur, but the larger planetary issue is that some life forms will continue on to make sure that “life goes on”. But I suppose most people aren’t really concerned whether there is life after people.

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  8. jonathan feldman says:

    Is he talking about the enviornment or the economy?
    (businesses = species)

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