Monday, April 11, 2005

Environmental Ethics and Biodiversity

Hi! First I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading Clare’s blogs (just didn’t have time to comment). And like Clare, I thought I’d start by briefly introducing myself. I’m Jeff’s (“little”—well, younger anyway!) sister, Liz. I’ve been living in the UK on and off since 1997, when I decided to do a Masters degree in Environmental Ethics at Lancaster University in England. I began a PhD in October, 2000, and now live in Edinburgh with my cat, Schmoo. Unfortunately, I’ve taken longer than anticipated to finish due to financial difficulties, but I am in the final months now!

My research is associated with the Institute for Environment, Philosophy, and Public Policy at Lancaster University (so I’m focused on applied ethics). Generally, I have examined the concept of biodiversity, considering how it conceives of and values non-human organisms. I show how and why I consider the current conceptualization of biodiversity to be lacking (detrimental for non-human and human beings). Then I explain the compatibility between the sustainability ethic (as understood in the mainstream) and systems ecology, which has been referenced to protect biodiversity. I conclude with support of a different ethic (feminist-based) and introduction to a particular kind of evolutionary ecology (through deep engagement with Darwin’s work), describing how these are compatible and can re-conceive of biodiversity; this ethic, referring to evolutionary ecology, can “fill in” much of what is missing in the popular conception. At this point, your eyes have glazed over--that’s often been the reaction I get when I explain what I’m doing to anyone!

I’ll conclude with something more interesting. I’ve come across some fascinating books while writing the thesis, and I thought I’d mention a few in this week’s entries. The first is a biography of the life of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller, called A Feeling for the Organism. McClintock discovered the transposition of genes (jumping genes) in maize plants and proposed her theory in the early 1950’s; other scientists remained constrained by the orthodoxy of the time, so McClintock’s work was dismissed as foolishness (this reminds me of what Clare told us about Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics). Her theories have become the orthodoxy now. Keller wanted to understand why McClintock was able to make this discovery while her colleagues did not—-Keller concluded that McClintock had a unique relationship with her study subjects, she had “a feeling for the organism”. I’ll include a short passage from my thesis, which refers to the book, to give you an idea of this “feeling”:

For McClintock, having a “feeling for the organism” required intense observation and “patience to hear what the material has to say to you”, the openness to “let it come to you.” (p. 198, Keller) Keller explains the relationship that developed between McClintock and her study subjects: “Over the years, a special kind of sympathy grew in McClintock, heightening her powers of discernment, until finally, the objects of her study have become the subjects of her study in their own right; they claim from her a kind of attention that most of us experience only in relation to other persons.” (p. 200) So, rather than imposing herself on the organisms (by anticipating what she should be seeing), she allowed the organisms to “possess” her in a sense, to talk to her.

McClintock was also acutely aware of individual difference (“no two plants are exactly alike…I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately).

There’s much more, but I think I’ll end it there for now. I can save three equally interesting books for next blog (Charles Darwin, The Power of Place, Feminism and Evolutionary Biology, and The Idea of Biodiversity: Philosophies of Paradise). Thanks for reading! (I won’t have time for another entry until Thursday, unfortunately, but more then).


At 12:13 PM, Blogger Weirdmonger said...

Hi, Liz, welcome and good luck with blogging for Jeff! I've met Jeff two or three times in UK.

I went to Lancaster University (Bailrigg) 1966-69 (where I met my wife). Hope your studies continue to do well.

At 4:19 PM, Anonymous jmorrison said...

yeah liz, welcome aboard. let the environmental ethics and biodiversity goodness begin! ...with a dash of "squirm inducingly embarrassing jeff related childhood anecdotes" i hope ;)

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