Is Conservation Biology a Science or a Religion?

by Randal O'Toole

Where do we draw the line between science and politics? Should scientists get involved in political issues such as pollution or conservation?

Many scientists want to keep a sharp line between science and politics and refuse to get involved. Others will get involved but clearly distinguish between their scientific findings and their political opinions. But a new breed of scientist is blurring the line between science and politics by using their scientific credentials to offer political opinions as if they were scientific facts.

The new "science" of conservation biology is driven more by politics than it is by science. At least, that is the conclusion of David Takacs in his recent book, "The Idea of Biodiversity: Philosophies of Paradise" (Johns Hopkins). Through detailed interviews with nearly two dozen conservation biologists, Takacs makes it clear that conservation biology is less a science and more of a religious crusade.

Ordinarily, I would dismiss such as book as some right-wing balderdash. But the fact is that Takacs is not criticizing conservation biology, he believes in it. Moreover, his book is endorsed by the people he interviews, including Edward O. Wilson, Michael Soule, and Paul Ehrlich.

"Scientists who love the natural world forged the term biodiversity as a weapon to be wielded in these battles," says Takacs, referring to battles for endangered species and ecosystems. It was easy to coin the term "biodiversity," says Walter Rosen, who first used it: "all you do is take the 'logical' out of 'biological.' "

"To take logical out of something that's supposed to be science is a bit of a contradiction in terms, right?" added Rosen, who worked for the National Academy of Sciences. "And yet, of course, maybe that's why I get impatient with the Academy, because they're always so logical that there seems to be no room for emotion in there, no room for spirit."

Rosen uses the word "spirit" in its religious sense, and Takacs shows that many conservation biologists want to be a part of "a religion-like movement." "Only a new religion of nature, similar but even more powerful than the animal rights movement, can create the political momentum to overcome the greed . . . that underlines the intentional abuse of nature" says Michael Soule.

Takacs devotes an entire chapter to Edward O. Wilson, who has practically been canonized by the conservation biologists. Wilson may be the world's leading authority on ants. But he went from there to develop the "science" of sociobiology, which is based on the idea that most or all animal social behavior is based on genetics.

The problem with sociobiology is that it is not "falsifiable," that is, there is no way to prove or disprove its contentions. Sociobiology's claims, Takac admits, "amount to little more than just-so stories. One could take any current trait of human beings and seek to 'explain' it by sociobiology. Yet no independent way exists to test most of those explanations." This was demonstrated at length by Stephen Jay Gould, but Takac dismisses Gould as a Marxist.

After sociobiology, Wilson went on to develop his "biophilia hypothesis," the idea that human evolution has led us to have an "innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes." According to Wilson, we have a "biophilic need" to preserve species that is as deeply rooted as any other genetic trait. If that is true, then we don't need any laws to protect endangered species--but of course, Wilson is using this hypothesis to justify such laws.

Takacs excuses Wilson's unscientific rantings by saying he is "responding in the only way he knows how to what I believe is for him--and for all of us--a true, devastating crisis." But Takacs only briefly explores the scientific basis of that crisis.

We are supposed to be in a biodiversity crisis because species are going extinct at the rate of 50,000 per year, or about one per minute. But no one has ever observed species going extinct at that rate. Instead, that number is based on studies of beetles in the Amazon rain forest. A scientist found that different trees in the rain forest were each inhabited by different species of beetles and that each species seemed to have an extraordinarily small range.

One purpose of the study was to estimate how many species of beetles could be found in the Amazon, and the total was in the millions or tens of millions. Biologists went on from there to reason that, because each species had such a small range, clearcutting of the rain forest would lead to their extinctions. At the time, Americans were vastly overestimating the rate of rain forest clearcutting, which led to high estimates of the rates of extinctions.

The first point here is that there are a lot of uncertainties in these calculations. Are there really so many beetle species? Do they really have such small ranges? Does clearcutting really cause them to go extinct? Is clearcutting really taking place as fast as we once thought? It is likely that biodiversity advocates exaggerated the answers to at least some of these questions.

A more important point is that the Endangered Species Act, which is the main tool Americans have to protect biodiversity, does nothing at all about the Amazon rain forest. Species endangerment is clearly a problem in the U.S. But extinction rates are closer to one per year than one per minute. A one-per-year extinction rate, bad as it may be, does not really support claims for a "biodiversity crisis" or the need to turn conservation biology into a religious movement.

Ironically, biodiversity advocates worry that their "science" will be misused by others. Oregon State University conservation biologist Reed Noss sees "amateur conservationists, using the term biodiversity in very, very loose ways. And what they're really interested in is wilderness--wild areas, natural areas" This suggests that, while conservation biologists may be allies of the new preservationists, they do not share the same goals.

But what are the goals of the conservation biologists? While the answer may seem obvious, the danger of turning science into religion or politics is that it causes scientists to lose perspective about the real problems and real solutions.

As documented in "Noah's Choice," by Charles Mann and Mark Plummer (Alfred Knopf), the Endangered Species Act was written by scientists who wanted to save species. Yet the methods they chose were entirely inappropriate and have largely failed to do the job.

The profession of conservation biology is largely an outgrowth of the Endangered Species Act. People like Michael Soule built their careers writing plans to save species under the act. So conservation biologists have a vested interested in keeping the act going whether it works or not.

Vested interest or not, turning rational science into irrational political or religious arguments allows people to completely overlook the inherent failings of the law. I have repeatedly quoted Peter Drucker, who points out that:

"Any government activity almost at once becomes 'moral.' The absence of results does not raise the question, Shouldn't we rather do something different? Instead, it leads to a doubling of effort, it only indicates how strong the forces of evil are."

We can see this attitude in an article written by Kieran Suckling, of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, in response to an article I wrote that pointed out that not even the Fish & Wildlife Service obeys the Endangered Species Act. Just "because the Fish and Wildlife Service regularly violates the ESA," responded Suckling, doesn't mean "the law itself must be broken. Doesn't it make more sense to conclude that the Fish and Wildlife Service is broken?" But he makes no suggestion of how we can fix the Fish & Wildlife Service without changing the law.

What is the appropriate role of science in politics? Science is tool we use to learn the truth. A statement that cannot be proven or disproven is not scientific.

The one science that deals with how people make decisions is not theology or conservation biology. It is economics. Economics shows that people make decisions on the basis of incentives. History shows that societies that base resource decisions on incentives conserve resources and sustainably build wealth far better than societies that base their decisions on central planning and command and control.

The command and control nature of the Endangered Species Act tramples on people's rights and on their freedoms. The result is a predictable but unintended consequence: people respond by destroying rather than saving habitat.

This is equally true on public land as on private land. A few years ago, the Forest Service's regional forester for Montana and Idaho wrote with a straight face that he wanted to build roads into roadless areas as fast as possible. To do otherwise, he said, would "close options" for the future, because if the roads weren't built Congress might turn the roadless areas into Wilderness areas.

It is time for conservation biologists to step back and consider not whether we are in a biological crisis but whether their profession is in a scientific crisis. If they really want to save species and diversity, then they should use tools that work, such as property rights, and not rely on religious cant.

Electronic Drummer | The Environmental Movement | Subsidies Anonymous