Chronicle of Belief: Part 3 – Nature’s Value

This third installment of Chronicle of Belief is about a subject very personal to me as a budding Biologist; nature. It is very easy to say that the natural world is a thing worth protecting and few fellow skeptics or rationalists would disagree, but why? What is so important about nature and is there an objective rational justification for why nature has value? To begin with let’s look at what my particular field, Conservation Biology is really all about.

For many people I imagine conservation conjures images of protesters and hippies, marching in the streets or standing in front of bull dozers. That sort of naïve environmentalism is however often irrational, counter-productive and/or used as a means to push some other ideological agenda. Conservation Biology is a scientific discipline that looks at how biological communities react to change, how different species and the environment interact with one another and how we as humans can ensure the continued existence of these systems. At it’s core Conservation Biology has a number of guiding principles:

Principles of Conservation Biology

1. Evolution is the basic axiom that unites all biology. Conservation biologists do not aim to conserve the status quo, nor stop the evolutionary process but to ensure that populations can adapt naturally to environmental change.

2. The ecological world is dynamic and non-equilibrial. Conservation based on a static view of nature is fundamentally flawed and a mis-representation of the natural world. A dynamic view allows for a deeper understanding.

3. The presence of humans must be included in conservation planning. Conservation biologists aims to integrate humans into the equation and study their impact.

These principles are text-book simplifications of a complex scientific field and highlight the dynamic, integrated approach that conservation biologists must take when approaching questions. It is also valuable to note that conservation biology is a ‘crisis discipline’, having been born from the outrage at anthropogenic mass extinctions and environmental destruction of the last few centuries. In this way it is also a science of eternal vigilance, there can never be a complete theory conservation biology as it is reactionary and time dependent. It is also not an exact science, biological systems are far too complex to ever predict with the certainty of say for example, a chemical reaction.

That is not to saw however that conservation biology is non-experimental. Our understanding of species ecology and physiology is bolstered by experiments in genetics, molecular biology, chemistry, biotechnology and many more disciplines. For this reason conservation biologists must at times be generalists, crossing the gaps between sciences in order to synthesize knowledge. None of this however explains ‘why’ conservation biology is important and why it is worthy of so much time and funding. In order to understand the ‘why’ of conservation biology we must examine ‘Soule’s Postulates’, 4 basic axioms that I follow.

Soule’s Postulates

1. Diversity of organisms is good
2. Ecological complexity is good
3. Evolution is good
4. Biotic diversity has intrinsic value

The last one really hits the issue on the head and gets to the meat of my entry. To me nature has an intrinsic value, meaning a value that does not need to lead to something else. This is an easy argument to make, but quite a difficult one to support. In order to understand what the intrinsic value of nature really means we must instead look at what constitutes an ‘extrinsic‘ value. The extrinsic values of nature are any value that leads to something else. This includes the value of its natural resources for development, land for crops or grazing and cultural significance as well as more esoteric values like inspiration for art, use for recreation or relaxation and the simple enjoyment that some humans find in experiencing the wild. All of these things lead to benefits for human kind, be they economical or psychological. After all the feeling of wonder and awe that we feel from the natural world has in essence been imposed upon us by our own psychology in order to create joy.

So does this pose a problem for me as a skeptic and rationalist? Can I hold a philosophical claim like “nature has intrinsic” value despite it’s lack of empirical evidence? Well no it doesn’t, and yes I can. Here’s why. When we examine our beliefs closely enough it is easy to see that even the most die hard skeptics hold similar sorts of ‘intrinsic’ values. For example just because we may understand the evolutionary reason for loving our children and can map it neurologically does not make the experience any less real. Few parents would take the extrinsic route and argue that their children are only valuable for what they lead to. Most humans recognize the intrinsic value of life, both theirs and others and do not require empirical evidence to support this. Those who don’t believe that human life has value are referred to as nihilists, and are generally an unpleasant bunch. Instead we accept that these values are just part of being human, and even when we understand them neurologically or chemically it does not detract from their importance. I then attribute the same sense of intrinsic value to nature as I do to human life, and I understand fully that this intrinsic value is also a relative intrinsic value. This is not a scientific claim, it is a philosophical one and I believe a natural extension of our evolved psychology.

The natural world for me will always have value in the same way that my own life has value. No values are empirical, but that doesn’t make them any less important. It is important that as skeptics and rationalists we never become the straw-men who ‘believe in nothing’ that our opponents so commonly trot out. That’s all for now, I will gladly answer any questions you may have if you feel I need to clarify my belief further.

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