November 21, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Is Darwinian Environmentalism an Oxymoron?

There’s something magnetic about letters to the editor.  We feel attracted to the responses of readers to what magazines print – especially when a mini-debate takes place and the author of an article replies.  In PNAS this week,1 two scientists aired a friendly squabble about the meaning of “biodiversity” and whether humans should defend it.  Darwin found himself square in the middle of the issue.
    Ivan Couée,1 a researcher in the Ecosystems-Biodiversity-Evolution section of the French National Center for Scientific Research, took issue with something Michael Novacek of the American Natural History Museum had said.2  Novacek had discussed the complex issues involved in dealing with public perception of the need to conserve biodiversity.  Couée said that scientists, in their attempts to define norms and values for the public, often tend to present the conservation of every species as “an absolute obligation.”  Then he nailed worldview issues at the core of these values; he could see creationists valuing conservation, but how does an evolutionist do so?

Certain visions of nature, as sacred creation, as precious patrimony, as optimally functioning system, or as aesthetics, all of which are static visions, may justify all-out systematic conservation.  On the other hand, evolutionary biology gives a radical lesson of utmost modesty not only to mankind, but also to the concept of nature itself.  Chaos, historical haphazards, tinkering, heterogeneity, random processes, and erratic fluctuations have resulted in the chemistry of molecular reproduction as a mechanism that has generated a myriad of life forms, known or unknown to us, emerging and disappearing, competing or sharing, essential or redundant for ecosystem functioning.  A fundamental consequence of evolutionary biology may be that, stricto sensu, biodiversity and conservation are oxymoronic words, which is likely to result in real confusion in the public.  Evolutionary biology should therefore be taken into account to a much greater extent in order to be much more cautious with words such as “conservation” and to develop a dynamic approach to biodiversity management.

PNAS gave Novacek the mike for his rebuttal.3  He denied that “sacred creation, patrimony or other such values” require conservation of biodiversity, though proponents of those views do sometimes appeal to them.  His article was just part of a series “actually dealing with the biodiversity loss in an evolutionary context,” he said.  And he agreed that evolutionists must take a dynamic approach to an evolving ecosphere “in ways that go beyond simply preserving biodiversity writ large.”  Nevertheless, he couldn’t get away from preaching that something must be done:

For example, the implementation of plans for corridors and networks that link local populations of plants and coral reef species are practical solutions based on evolutionary principles, mindful of the reality that we cannot preserve all regions, all habitats, and all species.  Not all factors are known or outcomes predictable with precision…. Evolution entails randomness, heterogeneity, and other factors that Couée mentions that frustrate our forecasts of Earth’s environmental future.  Still, urgency dictates a straightforward effort to mitigate the current massive destruction of biodiversity.  The word “conservation” may have problematic connotations, but by any other name there remains an acute need for a broad public as well as scientists to recognize the biodiversity crisis and to do something about it.

But did he answer the question?  Couée said that biodiversity and conservation are oxymoronic words to an evolutionist.  In a fluid, dynamic world of speciation and extinction, what basis does an evolutionist have for saying anything should be conserved?


1.  Ivan Couée, “Conservation and biodiversity: Potential oxymoron and public misunderstanding,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, print November 19, 2008, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0808294105.
2.  Novacek MJ (2008), “Engaging the public in biodiversity issues,” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 105:11571�11578.
3.  Michael J. Novacek, “Reply to Couée: Biodiversity conservation by any other name,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, published online before print November 19, 2008, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0809261105.

You know what the real oxymoron is: “consistent evolutionist.”  The concept of evolution (random, directionless, eternal change) is the opposite of consistency.  These letters reveal that evolutionist cannot live with the implications of their beliefs.  When you hear their urgent moral imperatives rising above their Darwinspeak, the choked voice of the imago Dei within them is struggling to be heard.

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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