The Idea of Biodiversity: Philosophies of Paradise

David Takacs
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996
393 pp., $35.95 hc

Elizabeth A. Hadly
Montana State University-Bozeman

If you are looking for a book about the concept "biodiversity" as biological thought do not look here. Instead, David Takacs in The Idea of Biodiversity examines "biodiversity" as a term and political vehicle for societal change. Takacs interviews 23 conservation biologists whose vocation is both to understand the science behind "biodiversity" and to preserve it. The core of the book comprises his critique of their comments. The book concludes with a chapter devoted to untangling the mind behind "biodiversity," that of E. O. Wilson.

Takacs is upfront about the book being a biased version of biodiversity, science, and conservation. He speaks out as a practitioner of "science studies" (a field which operates on the boundary between science and public perception of science. However, his treatment of science is superficial, emphasizing a postmodern interpretation, which sees science as a myth, culturally biased and entirely influenced by the practitioner. Takacs delves into the scientific underpinnings of the concept "biodiversity" only briefly, though throughout the book he professes to be dismayed at how poorly defined the concept is.

In one of the more engaging sections, Takacs takes us through the development of the term "biodiversity" from its inception in 1986 to today. "Biodiversity" was coined by Walter G. Rosen by combining "biological" and "diversity" and captured larger use by the publishing of BioDiversity, a volume of papers from the conference, "The National Forum on BioDiversity," September 21-24, 1986. Takacs tells us that the term "biodiversity" did not appear as a keyword in Biological Abstracts in 1988, but by 1993, "biodiversity" appeared 72 times. Because "biodiversity" has been co-opted for use by the public-at-large, the influence of the scientists who use it is potentially significant. Thus, part of Takacs" goal is to dissect the supposed purpose behind the use of the term by scientists to sway public opinion. His own definition of "biodiversity" is decidedly non-scientific and unwieldy: "...the multitude of real-world organisms, species and processes commingled with biologists" factual, emotional, political, aesthetic, spiritual, and ethical values of the natural world, all combined to shape public perceptions, actions, and feelings" (120).

I found the interviews with the 23 biologists to be the most appealing reading of the book. I admit to privately answering the questions posed to them and enjoyed both the similarities and differences in our answers. I found myself prickling at what I saw to be inconsistencies and misrepresentation of their ideas. Takacs is heavy-handed in his treatment of the biologists he interviewed. I feel immense gratitude toward these people because of their honesty and mission, but Takacs emphasized the negative in his presentation. On the one hand he admonishes the people he interviewed for their personal involvement in science, and on the other hand he concludes with a plea for personal and passionate involvement in preservation. In some ways the "tensions" he alludes to are of his own making because of this dichotomy. Takacs has deliberately chosen scientists who have a "vocation" toward conservation and then criticizes these people for their stance because they have limited "objectivity" and should therefore be suspect in their pronouncements as scientists.

Takacs" largest criticism of conservation biology is semantic (he is frustrated that "biodiversity" lacks a tight, universal definition. The meaning of biodiversity shifts with the observer. In fact, pivotal concepts in biology (e.g., "species", "ecosystem") often are loosely defined. "Science" does not know if biodiversity begets stability (sometimes yes and sometimes no). "Science" does not know what really creates diversification of organisms (is it climate? is it isolation? is it time?). The answer is yes to these questions, sometimes (but not always. The haziest biological concepts often correspond with the most active areas of research interest (What defines a species? What is an ecosystem? Does climate change influence life?). Society pushes science for global answers to questions that science does not know. It is curiosity about the frontiers represented by these complex concepts that drive science, however.

The value of this book is in causing us to reflect on the semantics of "biodiversity." Its shortcoming, however, is a failure to adequately convey how science is done.

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