Conservation biology and three value statements

The three ecological principles listed above form part of the biological foundation for the discipline of conservation biology. In addition, many conservation biologists accept three value statements—which by their very nature are not subject to scientific confirmation or disproof. In other words, conservation biology is inherently a value-laden discipline, and the following assumptions of worth define the ethical positions of many conservation biologists.

DIVERSITY OF ORGANISMS IS ASSUMED TO BE GOOD

Whenever possible conservation biologists defend diversity on utilitarian grounds—and make statements like, "Some little tropical plant may contain a cure for cancer." Furthermore, evidence exists that biological diversity within an ecosystem contributes to the ecosystem's persistence, stability, and productivity. Nevertheless, even without utilitarian support, many conservation biologists would assume that di versity is good in itself (an sich, as the German philosophers used to write) and therefore needs no means-toward-an-end justification. This assumption of intrinsic value is beautifully expressed by Archie Carr in his book Ulendo: Travels of a Naturalist in and out of Africa.

As a corollary to this value principle, most conservation biologists believe untimely extinctions (in general, defined as extinctions that result from human activities as opposed to extinctions that result from natural processes) should be prevented. Most conservation biologists also believe that local biodiversity is a universal good. Thus if desperately poor Madagascar cannot afford to protect the 50 endangered and vulnerable species living within her borders, then perhaps wealthy nations (or individuals) are morally obligated to assist with this conservation enterprise. This idea is returned to later in the present essay.

ECOLOGICAL COMPLEXITY IS ASSUMED TO BE GOOD

Clearly this is related to the first value principle above, but it is not exactly the same thing. Consider, for example, a botanical garden with its specimen trees and its greenhouses. Such an installation might contain more different species than a tropical rainforest (and thus would satisfy the principle that "diversity of organisms is good"), but it would not manifest the complex web of inter-organism relationships that characterize a tropical rainforest. The conservation biologist would likely prefer the rainforest to the botanical garden. Or consider this value principle in the form of a question. Some authorities believe that fewer than 1,000 species of large mammals can be preserved from extinction only in captivity. Will a typical conservation biologist be completely satisfied if these mammals survive only in zoos?

EVOLUTION IS ASSUMED TO BE GOOD

The diversity of organisms and the ecological complexities of their interrelations are products of evolution. Most conservation biologists affirm not only the value of the product but also the value of the process that made it. Let us see how this value principle might affect the political agenda of a conservation biologist. What if the wildlife-refuge systems of the world were sufficiently extensive to preserve every living species: would the conservation biologist be satisfied if refuges were not large and diverse enough to allow continued speciation (evolution)?

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