Epistemological and Normative Problems in the Operationalization of ‘Biodiversity’

Dr. Robert Frühstückl (doctoral project, ongoing)

Biodiversity has received growing attention in both domestic and international public policy since at least the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. It remains one of the key issues in the UNs Environment Programme and it is the central agenda of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). However, despite its prominence in international public policy, ecology, and conservation biology, biodiversity is a notoriously problematic concept.

A general and unified definition of biodiversity is still absent, and no serious contender seems to be forthcoming. Furthermore, although measurement practices have generally settled on taking species richness as a surrogate for general biodiversity, it is by no means uncontroversial nor indisputable that this would give us an adequate measure. To make things worse, there is a debate on whether biodiversity is a descriptive concept at all. Whereas some argue that biodiversity has to have a normative interpretation in virtue of being the goal of conservation efforts, others argue that this is either not the case, or makes the concept illegitimate in scientific discourse altogether.

In this thesis, I will undertake a philosophical analysis of the concept of biodiversity. I aim to show how epistemological and normative considerations are intertwined in a way that is hitherto not recognized in the literature. There are two hypotheses, guiding my research:

First, the normative and non-normative positions on the concept of biodiversity are not independent of each other but represent two different approaches to overcoming problems of empirical underdetermination. Paying attention to this fact helps us to see how conventional choices and values play a role in the formation of the concept of biodiversity and make it applicable across various contexts.

Second, in the context of practices in conservation biology, it has been argued that the algorithmic procedures, used in the design of nature reserves, implicitly define the concept of biodiversity. While this view remains controversial, I will argue that there is a sense in which we can vindicate the idea that these procedures figure into the formation and consolidation of the concept of biodiversity and thus even contribute to its theoretical framework.