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Conference: Integrating the History and Philosophy of Biodiversity.


Integrating the History and Philosophy of Biodiversity. Narratives of Diversity, Extinction, Conflict and Value

Brussels, October 20–21, 2023


Keynote Speakers

David Sepkoski, University of Illinois. Prof. Sepkoski is the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in History of Science at the University of Illinois.

Alkistis Elliott-Graves, Bielefeld University. Prof. Elliott-Graves is Junior-Professor of Philosophy at Bielefeld University.


Preliminary Schedule

October 20

9h30–9h45Registration, Welcome and Coffee
9h45–10hConference Welcome: Charles Pence
10h–11h“Biodiversity Past, Present, and Future: Are We in a Sixth Mass Extinction?”

Keynote: David Sepkoski (University of Illinois)

The present global biodiversity crisis is often referred to an ongoing “Sixth Mass Extinction,” an explicit reference to the five major mass extinction events identified by paleontologists in the geological past. There is obvious rhetorical advantage to presenting current events in this way: since the 1980s the public has been well-informed about mass extinctions—particularly the event that ended the dinosaurs’ rule—and the implied message is that we as a species may be inflicting on ourselves what happened to the dinosaurs by chance.

Whether or not current diversity estimates and species extinction rates actually match those of past events—or whether past and present data can even be meaningfully compared—is another matter. Nonetheless, since the beginnings of the organized biodiversity movement in the late 1970s frequent and explicit comparison of past and current extinction rates has been a central feature of the rhetoric. In other words, calling the biodiversity crisis a “Sixth Extinction” is an empirical claim, not just a compelling analogy.

This talk will examine the origins and consequences of that empirical basis as it moved from a rather obscure entomology journal into the mainstream of scientific and eventually public biodiversity conservation discourse. It will highlight the important role that paleontology and paleontologists have played in this process, both as a source of empirical and moral support, and as critical foils for biodiversity advocacy. In particular, the talk will focus on E.O. Wilson as a key conduit between paleontological and biological contexts for diversity analysis, and it will raise questions about whether biodiversity advocates successfully—or honestly—reconciled key differences between data, methods, and scale in past and present crises. And it will conclude by asking whether “biodiversity” is, itself, a coherent or stable concept.

Prof. Sepkoski is the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in History of Science at the University of Illinois.

11h–11h30“What is ‘evidence’ in evidence-based biodiversity conservation? Potential, Actual, and Good Evidence in IUCN’s Red List”

Federica Bocchi (Boston University)

11h30–11h40Coffee Break
11h40–12h10“Species Conservation, Classificatory Risk, and Adequacy-for-Purpose”

Joeri Witteveen (University of Copenhagen)

12h10–12h40“The Role of Conceptual Models in Ecosystem Conservation: Motivations and Challenges”

Michael Bennett McNulty, Max Dresow, and Lauren Wilson (University of Minnesota)

12h40–14hLunch Break

14h–14h30“From Species Richness to Multidimensional Biodiversity Change: Epistemological and Conceptual Shifts in Biodiversity Research”

Robert Frühstückl (University of Bielefeld)

14h30–15h“Opening the Climate Envelope: The History of Climate Envelope Models, 1970–2010”

Oliver Lucier (Yale University)

15h–15h15Coffee Break

15h15–15h45“African Mammals as Cultural Heritage: On Biodiversity in the Age of Decolonization”

Erika Lorraine Milam (Princeton University)

15h45–16h15“Rewilding Between Recolonization and Re-Indigenization: Place-Based Rewilding as a Pathway for Coexistence”

Linde De Vroey (University of Antwerp)

16h15–16h45“Royal Monopolies and the Ineffective Colonial Conservation of the Brazilwood Tree (1500–1570)”

Seán Thomas Kane (Binghamton University)

16h45–17hCoffee Break

17h–17h30“Fiction Film and the Construction of Visual Socio-Cultural Spaces for Biodiversity”

Carlos Tabernero (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

17h30–18h“Sightings: The Role of Ghost Species in Accounting Biodiversity Loss”

Xinyue Liu (University of Oxford)

October 21

10h–10h15Arrival and Coffee

10h15–10h45“Artifice and Biodiversity in the Greenhouse: Unruly Plants and Complicated Climates in Early Nineteenth-Century France and England”

Tamara Caulkins (Central Washington University)

10h45–11hCoffee Break

11h–11h30“Pay Attention to the Shaved Bumblebee Behind the Curtain: Debiasing Field Collection of Biodiversity Samples”

Carlos Santana (University of Pennsylvania)

11h30–12h30The Meta-Research Toolkit for Ecology and Conservation

Keynote: Alkistis Elliot-Graves (University of Bielefeld)

How is biodiversity changing at the local scale? What are the effects of livestock grazing on biodiversity? How do invasive species affect biodiversity? How does diversified farming affect biodiversity? What is the effect of organic farming on biodiversity? How does functional redundancy affect ecosystem resilience? One thing that these questions have in common is that they have been given different, sometimes even conflicting, answers. But how should we understand these divergent results? One (historically quite popular) interpretation would be that there is something fishy going on in some (or all) of the research, such as flawed experimental design, replication failure, etc. More, recently, however, ecologists and conservation biologists have been using a different toolkit to analyse primary research and are increasingly able to make sense of these divergent results. This toolkit consists of systematic review and meta-analysis (SRMA). This toolkit remains quite controversial, as scientists and philosophers alike have documented numerous shortcomings, such as various types of bias. However, most of these critiques focus on SRMA in the field of medicine. While I agree with these critiques in the context of medicine, I argue that SRMAs in ecology and conservation biology are different in two key ways: (i) there are important differences between medical and biological primary studies (i.e. what SRMAs are based on), and (ii) SRMAs in ecology and conservation biology are used differently than those in the medical sciences. That is, biological SRMAs are aimed at exploring the scope of generalisations, hence they can succeed in explaining why we see such divergence in the results of primary studies. In light of these differences, I caution against dismissing or underestimating the value of the SRMA toolkit in the context of ecology and conservation biology.

Prof. Elliott-Graves is Junior-Professor of Philosophy at Bielefeld University.

12h30–14hLunch Break

14h–14h30“From Reduction to Preservation: A Long History of Genetic Biodiversity in Farmed Pigs (France, 1850–2000)”

Clémence Gadenne-Rosfelder (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales [EHESS])

14h30–15h“Laboratory Work as Conservation: American Lab Scientists, Extinction, and the Proper Use of Chimpanzees, 1945–1980”

Brigid Prial (University of Pennsylvania)

15h–15h30Coffee Break

15h30–16h“A Conceptual History of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 1986–1997”

Julia Nordblad (Uppsala University)

16h–16h30“Disease as a Silver Lining? The Troubled History of Biodiversity and Health in the Upper Guinean Forests of West Africa”

Shadrach Kerwillian and Gregg Mitman (Ludwig Maximilian University)

16h30–16h45Conference Goodbye

Charles Pence and Max Bautista Perpinyà



For the most updated information, go to https://pencelab.be/events/biodiversity-2023/.




Charles Pence
Max Bautista Perpinya


Museum of Natural Sciences, Brussels
Rue Vautier, 29
Brussels, 1000 Belgium