The Structural Links Between Ecology, Evolution and Ethics: The Virtuous Epistemic Circle

Dordrecht, Netherland: Springer (2013)
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Abstract - Evolutionary, ecological and ethical studies are, at the same time, specific scientific disciplines and, from an historical point of view, structurally linked domains of research. In a context of environmental crisis, the need is increasingly emerging for a connecting epistemological framework able to express a common or convergent tendency of thought and practice aimed at building, among other things, an environmental policy management respectful of the planet’s biodiversity and its evolutionary potential. Evolutionary biology, ecology and ethics: at first glance, three different objects of research, three different worldviews and three different scientific communities. In reality, there are both structural and historical links between these disciplines. First, some topics are obviously common across the board. Second, the emerging need for environmental policy management has gradually but radically changed the relationship between these disciplines. Over the last decades in particular, there has emerged a need for an interconnecting meta-paradigm that integrates more strictly evolutionary studies, biodiversity studies and the ethical frameworks that are most appropriate for allowing a lasting co-evolution between natural and social systems. Today such a need is more than a mere luxury, it is an epistemological and practical necessity. In short, the authors of this volume address some of the foundational themes that interconnect evolutionary studies, ecology and ethics. Here they have chosen to analyze a topic using one of these specific disciplines as a kind of epistemological platform with specific links to topics from one or both of the remaining disciplines. Michael Ruse’s chapter, for instance, elucidates some of the structural links between Darwinismand ethics. Ruse analyzes the Evolutionism vs. Creationism debate, emphasizing the risks run by scientists when they ideologize the scientific content of their studies. In the case of the contributions of Jean Gayon and Jean-Marc Drouin, which respectively deal with the disciplines of evolutionary biology and ecology, some central connections have been developed between these two disciplines, while reserving the option to consider in detail their topic in order to discover essential features ormeanings. Gayon analyzes the multilayered meanings of “chance” in evolutionary studies and the methodological implications that accompany such disparatemeanings. Froma similar analytical perspective, Drouin’s contribution focuses on the identification and critical evaluation of the different conceptions of time in ecology. Chance and time, factors of evolution in species and ecological systems, play a very important function in both disciplines, and these chapters help to capture their polysemous structure and development. Bryan Norton’s chapter, on adaptive environmental management, is set within an epistemological context where the Darwinian paradigm, ecological knowledge and ethical frameworks meet to give rise to practical, conservationist policies. In his contribution, Patrick Blandin pleads for the necessity of an eco-evolutionary ethics capable of fully encompassing humanity’s responsibility in the future determination of the biosphere’s evolutionary paths. Our value systems must recognize the predominant place that humanity has taken in the evolutionary history of the planet, and integrate the ethical ramifications of scientific advances in evolutionary and ecological studies. The chapter by J. Baird Callicott introduces us to a metaphorical ecological reversion with direct consequences for our moral conduct. If ecology showed that ecosystems are not organisms, recognizing organisms as a kind of ecosystem could be the basis for a new post-modern ecological ethics that lays the foundation for a better moral integration of humans with the environment. The contributions of Robin Attfield and Tom Regan delve into some of the classical issues in environmental ethics, situating them within a broader ecological and evolutionary context. Attfield’s chapter tackles the confrontation between individualistic and ecologically holistic perspectives, their different approaches to the issue of intrinsic value, and their tangled relation to monism and pluralism. Regan’s contribution ponders the criteria that allow individual beings, human and non-human, to own moral rights, the role of the struggle for existence in the relationship between species, and the logical difficulties involved in attributing intrinsic value to collective entities (species, ecosystems). Catherine Larrère’s chapter discusses the opposition between two environmental and ethical worldviews with very different philosophical centers of gravity: nature and technology. These opposing perspectives have direct consequences not only for the perception of the problems at hand and for what entities are deemed morally significant, but also for the proposed solutions. To set out some foundational events in the history of evolutionary biology, ecology and environmental ethics is a first necessary step towards a clarification of their major epistemological orientations. On the basis of this inevitably nonexhaustive history, it will be possible to better position the work of the different contributors, and to build a meta-paradigm, i.e. a connecting epistemological framework resulting from one common or convergent tendency of thought and practice shared by different disciplines.

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