Why preserve biodiversity? That question has motivated me since I was a sophomore in college in the early 1990's. Since then, I've done research on biodiversity and the functions and services it provides, and I've given hundreds, if not a thousand, lectures about why biodiversity is important. Sure, there are scientific reasons to preserve biodiversity. And as you know, the Federal Government and other entities have traditionally focused considerable effort on saving endangered species. There are numerous ethical, economic, aesthetic, and other reasons that we could discuss, at length, for why we should work to preserve biodiversity and those species that are most threatened with extinction.
Maybe you agree with everything I've written above, or at least some of what I've written above. I guess I would be surprised that anyone would disagree with what I've written. But, as I've written before, I live in a bit of a bubble. But there are people who apparently disagree with the paragraph above. For example, here's a perspective that was published about a week ago in the Washington Post. It's entitled "We don't need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution." The author, an Associate Professor of Biology at George Washington University named R. Alexander Pyron, writes "… the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency", "… we should feel no remorse about altering our environment…", and " Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves. Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves." I could go on, but you should go read it for yourself.
As you might imagine, when folks caught wind of Dr. Pryon's essay, there was dismay, anger, and some ridicule on platforms like twitter. And, many of us (and by many, I mean >3000 people, including ~20 from UVM) have signed a letter to the editor of the Washington Post that that counters much of what Pyron wrote in his essay. (And if you want to sign, go here by 7PM tonight, EST).
But the story gets a bit more interesting. Apparently Dr. Pyron posted a commentary on his Facebook page that included the following:
“In the brief space of 1,900 words, I failed to make my views sufficiently clear and coherent, and succumbed to a temptation to sensationalize parts of my argument. Furthermore, I made the mistake of not showing the piece to my colleagues at GWU first; their dismay mirrored that of many in the broader community. As I’ve explained to their satisfaction, and now I wish to explain to the field at large, my views and opinions were not accurately captured by the piece, and I hope the record can now be corrected. In particular, the headlines inserted for the piece for publication said “We don’t need to save endangered species,” and that “we should only worry about preserving biodiversity when it helps us.” I did not write these words, I do not believe these things, and I do not support them.”
Over at a blog called Writing Science, Josh Schimel writes the following, in a longer blog post that I would encourage you to read:
Dr. Pyron is saying things that are scientifically reasonable and thoughtful in his long, thoughtful, Facebook post. Unfortunately few will ever read the FB post; millions may read the op-ed. The public gets the wrong message, and his scientific peers are dismayed. Not a good outcome. Remember, always, that communication isn’t what you think you are giving, but what the reader gets. In this case, most readers get a message that was antithetical to Dr. Pyron’s true beliefs. Ouch. That is a true failure in writing. Worse, it is a failure that Dr. Pyron is going to have to live with because published is forever. You can’t unpublish something. [bold added for emphasis by Nate]
Equally, this is a powerful lesson in the value of peer review: Dr. Pyron did not run the piece past his peers and so never got feedback that indicated that readers were getting a different message than that he intended.
So, there are lots of lessons here, for all of us. One of course is that we should all work on communicating clearly. If someone doesn't understand what you've written or what you've said, it could be your fault. And, now that you've perhaps read Dr. Pyron's piece, you know how you would refute or rebut his arguments, given that you're all interdisciplinary thinkers who know (or are soon learning!) about the importance of biodiversity, and how to have a civil, engaging discussion with someone.
But wait! While I've been writing this, Dr. Pyron has updated his webpage with a longer defense/explanation of his Washington Post essay. Go see for yourselves what he has to say. (Now that I've read it, I have my own thoughts).
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