Is there a formal definition of 'nature' in Biology?

Is there a formal definition of 'nature' in Biology?

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I've been discussing with a friend about Earth Day and at a certain point came out the question

What do you call "nature"?

He said that he considers "nature" basically all matter, including plastics and all kind of man-made materials.

I said that as far as I understand, "nature" is the ensemble of all Earth's ecosystems, thus if something is not part of an ecosystem, it is not "nature".

Is there an official definition of what is considered to be "nature"? If yes, what is it? If no, is there a reason?

Is there a definition of "nature"?

I don't think there is any commonly accepted definition of "nature" in biology. To my experience, the term "nature" is actually relatively rarely used in conferences or peer-reviewed papers.

Why is there no formal definition of nature?

The concept of "nature" has been developed outside the field of science or philosophy. As often concepts in the popular culture are used without a proper, complete definition. Even if there is an vague intuition that correspond to a concept, it does not mean that there is any way to make an objective definition of this concept. I think the absence of formal definition of nature mainly come from the fact that nature as used in the population culture does not mean much.

Is the term "nature" used in Biology and with which definition?

I just did a quick review of the use of the term "nature" in peer-reviewed articles. It seems that the term "nature" is rarely used or only in the abstract r in the first two paragraphs of the introduction to convey very general (and somewhat inaccurate) ideas.

Often, the term "nature" holds for "essence", "origin" or "intrinsic characteristic" rather than referring to "outside the lab", "landscape" or "ecosystems". Here are some examples of where I found the term nature

"Nature" as "Essence"

From the abstract of Gibson and Dworkin 2004

[… ] we highlight recent progress in determining the nature and identity of genes that underlie cryptic genetic effects [… ]

From the first paragraph of Woolhouse et al. 2002

Failure to recognize the dynamic nature of the interaction could result in misinterpretation [… ]

"Nature" as "outside the lab"

First sentence of the second paragraph of Elena and Lenski 2003

Since Darwin's day, many examples of evolution in action have been studied in nature [… ]

Note btw that there is no good (objective) definition of life either. One might want to have a look at Why isn't a virus alive? for a discussion on the definition of life.

The meaning of words depends on how people use them. However it would appear that your friend is in a minority applying the word 'Nature' to man-made things. Thus,

The OED definition includes:

The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations

and Merriam-Webster:

the physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people


It's no coincidence that nurture is a synonym of nourish-both are derived from the Latin verb nutrire, meaning "to suckle" or "to nourish." The noun nurture first appeared in English in the 14th century, but the verb didn't arrive until the 15th century. Originally, the verb nurture meant "to feed or nourish." The sense meaning "to promote the development of" didn't come into being until the end of the 18th century. Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, is credited with first giving life to that sense in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792): "Public spirit must be nurtured by private virtue." Other nutrire descendants in English include nutrient, nutritious, nutriment, nutrition, and, of course, nourishment.

1. Natures

Nature, according to Aristotle, is an inner principle of change and being at rest (Physics 2.1, 192b20&ndash23). This means that when an entity moves or is at rest according to its nature reference to its nature may serve as an explanation of the event. We have to describe how&mdashto what extent, through what other processes, and due to what agency&mdashthe preconditions for the process of change or of being at rest are present, but once we have provided an account of these preconditions, we have given a complete account of the process. The nature of the entity is in and of itself sufficient to induce and to explain the process once the relevant circumstances do not preempt it.

Natures as inner principles of change and rest are contrasted with active powers or potentialities (dunameis), which are external principles of change and being at rest (Metaphysics 9.8, 1049b5&ndash10), operative on the corresponding internal passive capacities or potentialities (dunameis again, Metaphysics 9.1, 1046a11&ndash13). When a change, or a state of rest, is not natural, both the active and the passive potentiality need to be specified. Natures, then, in a way do double duty: once a nature is operative, neither a further active, nor a further passive capacity needs to be invoked. Even so, as will be clear from Aristotle&rsquos discussion, this general thesis will require a host of qualifications.

Because natures&mdashbeside the active and passive potentialities&mdashare ultimate grounds in causal explanations, Aristotle sets out how they are integrated with the doctrine of causation.

The four causes

An explanation for a state of affairs must specify some feature or some object (in general, some abstract or concrete entity) which is responsible for it. The entity responsible is, Aristotle submits, a cause (aitia or aition, words used interchangeably by Aristotle). [4] Different explanations of a single state of affairs are possible, and indeed usually necessary, because there are different ways of being responsible for distinct facets of the same state of affairs. The varieties of responsibilities are grouped by Aristotle under four headings, the so-called four causes.

The first two of these are matter and form, what an entity is made up from according to Aristotle&rsquos hylomorphic analysis. Understandably, both of them can be responsible for the features and the behaviour of the entity they make up. Hylomorphic analysis, together with the separation of the material and formal causes as distinct types, implies that if something is explicable in terms of matter or form, explanations in terms of form will be different in kind from those given in terms of matter. As a rule there is a collaboration between these causes: matter provides the potentialities which are actualised by the form. Accordingly, these causally relevant entities give rise to a hierarchic structure of explanation. [5] In order for a form to be realised, one needs to have suitable matter. This suitable matter brings with it the features required by a given hylomorphic composite. These features, then, are on the one hand the contribution of the matter, and as such the matter is the (material) cause of these features of the composite entity, whereas on the other hand they are indispensable presuppositions for the realisation of the form, and to that extent their presence is prompted by the form. [6] Such dependency relations between matter and form are labelled by Aristotle as cases of hypothetical necessity. Aristotle sometimes illustrates his point by appealing to the matter required for the construction of a house. If there is a house to be built, one needs building bricks, slabs, mortar, etc. Each part provides material with properties within a definite range of the sort required for a house to come into being. A house cannot, for example, be made out of liquid water. This sort of matter provides potentialities not suited to the form of house.

Explanations often specify entities beyond the role played by the matter and the form of the entity itself. These cases are grouped by Aristotle as efficient or moving causes on the one hand and as final causes on the other. Efficient causes operate in a straightforward manner by initiating processes and bringing about their effects, whereas final causes account for processes and entities by being what these processes and entities are for, what they objectively intend to attain. [7] The fact that the role of efficient causes is not identical to that of the matter and the form of the entity whose features they are to explain does not require that every instance of efficient causation must issue from outside the entity moved. On the contrary, an efficient cause can also be internal. In cases in which the efficient cause is internal, it will be, in its specific function, one of the parts, or even the formal aspect, of the entity caused to move.

Natures, understandably, can feature in any of these four causal functions. However, when the matter of an entity functions as its nature&mdashi.e., when its natural motion and rest are explained in terms of the matter it is made of&mdashthis matter must possess some causally relevant features, bestowed upon it by its own formal aspect.

This role of matter can be contrasted to the causal role of the three further types of causes&mdashof form, of efficient cause, and of final cause respectively. This is so, because, as Aristotle adds, form and final cause often coincide. Moreover, when a nature is specified as a first efficient cause, cause and effect are the same in form (or in species), though this is not to say that one and the same entity causes itself and is caused through its own causal efficacy (Physics 2.7, 198a24&ndash27, cf. Metaphysics 8.4, 1044a32&ndashb1).

As internal principles of moving and rest, natures stand in an exclusive relationship to the efficient or moving causes of the motions and rests they bring about: in some cases when Aristotle is not specifying the first moving cause, he can assert the identity of nature and moving cause. Accordingly, the soul of living beings will be identified as the substance (i.e., form) and the moving cause of the organism whose soul it is. [8] But the identification, even in this restricted sense, will need some further important qualifications, to which we will return in Section 5 below, on movers and unmoved movers.

Characteristics of Protists

They are also seen in nearly every ecological niche – from hot springs to arctic ice caps, from swimming pools to the intestines of mosquitoes. Some are even present in deep ocean geothermal vents.

Most protists have a mitochondria and a well defined cellular structure. However, the cells are rarely organized into higher structures. Even macroscopic species like giant kelp, that can be tens of meters in length, are formed by large clonal aggregations of complex cells that are fully functional and completely independent. There is no specialization in the cells, nor the formation of tissues or organs. This contributes to the phenomenon of polymorphy, where a protist can appear as an independent cell at some point in its life cycle and as a clonal aggregate at others. This is one of the major reasons why giant kelps are not considered plants.

Reproduction is mainly through binary fission or budding, allowing for the continuation of specialized adaptations. However, sexual reproduction when it does occur, can take on varied forms, whether self-fertilized or through cross-fertilization. For example, Plasmodium, the causative agent for malaria, has an asexual as well as a sexual phase in its life cycle. Many protists are also believed to show facultative sexual reproduction.

Programme Overview

The study programme has a duration of 4 semesters. A total of 5 mandatory (basic) modules and 10 elective modules and a Master thesis are a requirement to complete the programme.

The five mandatory modules provide basic knowledge in the fields of landscape ecology, environmental economics and environmental ethics. You will participate in an international excursion and perform a research internship, which is designed to improve scientific working skills.
Furthermore, you have the opportunity to customize your study programme according to your interests due to a variety of elective modules. There are more than 50 modules to choose from, covering:

• Biology (Zoology, Botany, Microbiology)
• Landscape Ecology and Ecosystem Dynamics
• Peatland sciences
• Environmental economics
• Environmental ethics
• Limnology
• Geography and geology

Due to capacity limits in some elective modules and because of inevitable overlap of courses, the completion of every possible combination of elective modules cannot be guaranteed within the regular duration of the master programme.

The general outline of your study programme is as follows:

1st Semester

• Landscape Ecology and Economics (Mandatory Module)

• Ethics and Environment (Mandatory Module)

• ca. 3 Elective Modules to be chosen by you

2nd Semester

• International Excursion (Mandatory Module)

• ca. 4 Elective Modules to be chosen by you

3rd Semester

• Research Internship (Mandatory)

• Personal profiling (Mandatory to be chosen by the student among the academic offers at Greifswald University)


ARISTOTLE, Opera (Paris, 1629) ST. THOMAS, Opera (Parma, 1852-72) DUNS SCOTUS, Opera (Lyons, 1639) LORENZELLI, Institutiones Philosophiæ Theoreticæ (Rome, 1896) HARPER, Metaphysics of the School (London, 1879) MERCIER, Ontologie (Louvain, 1902) NYS, Cosmologie (Louvain, 1906) DE VORGES, La Perception et la Psychologie Thomiste (Paris, 1892) DE WULF, Scholastic Philosophy, tr. COFFEY (London, 1907) DALGAIRNS, The Holy Communion (Dublin, 1861) SHARPE AND AVELING, The Spectrum of Truth (London, 1908) WINDLE, What is Life? (London, 1908) GURY, Theologia Moralis (Prato, 1894) KANT, Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Riga, 1781) HEGEL, Werke (Berlin, 1832) HERBART, Werke (Leipzig, 1850-2) HOBBES, Leviathan (London, 1651) IDEM, Elementorum Philosophiæ sectio prima. De Corpore (London, 1655) LOCKE, An Essay concerning Humane Understanding (London, 1714) CUDWORTH, A Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (London, 1731) HUME, Works, ed. GREEN AND GROSE (London, 1878) HAMILTON, Lectures on Metophysic and Logic, ed. MANSEL AND VEITCH (Edinburgh, 1859-60) MANSEL, Prolegomena Logica, "An Inquiry into the Psychological Character of Logical Processes" (Oxford, 1851) MILL, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (London, 1865) GROTE, Aristotle, ed. BAIN AND ROBERTSON (London, 1872) UEBERWEG, System der Logik (Bonn, 1857) IDEM, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie (Berlin, 1863-8).

5. The Conservation Biology Framing

5.1 Introduction

Sarkar (2017: 43) summarises the basis for what might be called the conservation biology framing of &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo:

the term &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo and the associated concept(s) were introduced in the context of the institutional establishment of conservation biology as an academic discipline&hellip.

The SEP conservation biology entry describes the motivation for a biodiversity framing tied to this historical link: &ldquoin the 1980s, conservation biologists united and argued that biodiversity should be the focus of the discipline&rdquo which &ldquorests on the value assumption that biodiversity is good and ought to be conserved&rdquo. This rationale, however, was not linked to any clear idea of what &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo means:

conservation biology as a discipline has expended a great deal of intellectual effort in articulating exactly what is its object of study and has settled on biodiversity as the answer. However, there is a debate concerning what biodiversity is&hellip.

Here, the stated rationale is that &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo is normative and is the focus of the discipline, but there is no reference to the pre-history discussions of a normatively relevant definition of biodiversity as variety.

The review of the development of the conservation biology, by Meine, Soule, and Noss. (2006), does trace some historical foundations. It documents the idea of a shift in thinking from individual species losses to loss of the diversity of life. This shift is described nicely in comparing two editions (1959 and 1987) of the same book (Matthiessen 1987)&mdashwhere the 1987 version introduces new emphasis on the loss of &ldquothe diversity of life&rdquo. [2]

Sarkar (2017) notes that ecological diversity indices were largely ignored in the early history of conservation biology. In contrast, Meine, Soule, and Noss. (2006) frequently used the term &ldquodiversity&rdquo, This perhaps reflected co-author Noss&rsquos (1990) much-cited paper characterising biodiversity as including composition, structure, and function, which echoes the range of &ldquodiversity&rdquo measures in ecology. The unlimited possibilities of such diversity measures may have contributed to the difficulty in finding agreement on a single definition of &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo. The conservation biology framing thus gains justification in embracing the prospect of &ldquoworking-backwards&rdquo, with the challenge to define &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo to capture those aspects of biological/conservation normative value.

How then is &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo to be defined under these assumptions? The next two sections review the important discussions about the definition of biodiversity, and the later arguments that the definitional problems mean that the term &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo is counter-productive and should be abandoned.

5.2 Biodiversity deflationism

&ldquoBiodiversity deflationism&rdquo emphasises the role of the biodiversity concept in conservation practice. Deflationists consider biodiversity as &ldquowhat is conserved by the practice of conservation biology&rdquo (Sarkar 2002: 132). Unlike other framings of biodiversity, biodiversity is operationally defined, there is no semantic definition, just an output from the practice of conservation.

The practice of conservation biology should, within this view, be systematic conservation planning (Sarkar & Margules 2002). What is being conceptualised as biodiversity is revealed by this activity. This decision procedure involves using algorithms to identify a conservation area network a conservation area that best optimises the interests of local stakeholders. Local stakeholders, people with an interest in that land, decide what features they want to prioritise. While stakeholder can have a wide range of interests in this land, they must include &ldquobiodiversity constituents&rdquo or &ldquotrue surrogates&rdquo (Sarkar 2005, 2012). These describe the biotic features that the procedure maximises. &ldquoBiodiversity constituents&rdquo might appear to largely overlap with &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo in the sense of variety: a list of items, or measures of variety that describe biological items, which we aim to preserve. However, these items are not necessarily measuring biotic variety, as Sarkar includes sacred groves or the Monarch Butterfly Migration route as constituents of biodiversity. Sarkar stipulates that biodiversity constituents must satisfy the following conditions: they must be biological, variability of biotic features must be represented, taxonomic spread should be represented, these biotic features should not just be those of material use (Sarkar 2005 2012). As such, there are adequacy conditions which guide what the procedure optimises and, as a result, conserves.

For proponents of biodiversity deflationism, there is no fact of the matter about what biodiversity is. Biodiversity is irrevocable local and tied to local values and interests in the natural environment. We can only infer backwards from what is preserved in the act of conservation to what convention tends to be described as biodiversity (Sarkar 2019). Therefore, biodiversity cannot play any role as a concept outside of the context of local conservation practice. This has an odd implication. Across biology biodiversity is used as concept within the science, both for conservation but for other sciences. Deflationists tend to dismiss biodiversity eliminativists, who want to ban the use of &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo, as too impractical as it is a common term in conservation (Sarkar 2019: 378). They, however, limit &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo to only conservation practice, claiming that scientific concepts of biodiversity are irrelevant (Sarkar 2019: 381). Biodiversity does not exist for the use of scientists in research. Thus, biodiversity conventionalists eliminate biodiversity from the context of scientific research and claim such research does not indicate what features we should preserve (see also the section on operationalizing biodiversity in the entry on conservation biology).

5.3 Biodiversity eliminativism

While biodiversity has been accepted as a core goal of modern conservation science, there is some scepticism in the philosophical literature toward the utility of this concept. A series of philosophers have argued that the biodiversity concept is detrimental to environmental efforts (Maier 2012 Santana 2014, 2018 Morar, Toadvine, & Bohannan 2015). These arguments tend to coalesce around several points: that the biodiversity concept not operationalizable, biodiversity is not desirable, and that the concept obscures many of the values people have towards nature. The argument is that, either the concept cannot be used, or it may be used, but with recognition that it does not represent our ethical interest in the environment.

The belief that biodiversity cannot be adequately operationalized has appeared numerous times through the literature. Some argue that operationalizing biodiversity requires a &ldquodiversity&rdquo measure, or set of measures, both represent the concept of biodiversity and not be contradictory in its recommendations about what to conserve. Bryan Norton early on suggested that

strong arguments show that an index that captures all that is legitimately included as biodiversity is not possible. Biodiversity cannot be made a measurable quantity. (Norton 2008: 373)

This is because many of the different scientific measures for biodiversity are incommensurable, clashing with each other. For example: an area of possessing populations that are highly functionally distinct may be quite species poor. Some take the apparent incommensurability of biodiversity measures to show that measures should be used in context sensitive instances either relative to the development of conservation science or to the local interests of stakeholders (Koricheva & Siipi 2004 Sarkar 2005 Maclaurin & Sterelny 2008). An alternative considered is that we should narrow down the list of measures to that are most important according to some desiderata (Maclaurin & Sterelny 2008 Lean 2017 Meinard, Coq, & Schmid 2019).

Even if &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo was made to be tractable (in the sense used above), eliminativists are suspicious of biological diversity being regarded as valuable. Diversity across different biological arrangements is even argued to be undesirable. Maier points to diversity of parasites and diseases being undesirable (Maier 2012). Diversity sometimes reduces the value of taxa as the rarity of a species tends to increase its value (Santana 2014). Morar, Toadvine, and Bohannan (2015) explain this is because it is &ldquonot life&rsquos variety but rather life itself&rdquo (2015: 24) that is valuable (without making reference to insurance and options values of variety). The perception of a mismatch between ethical interests in the environment and diversity is emphasised by all eliminativists.

Eliminativists believe &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo has mislead conservation, as the concept and term was designed to be exhaustive of human interests in the environment&mdashand it cannot succeed in this task. The idea that biodiversity was designed to represent all human values of the environment appears in Maier&rsquos work as &ldquothe biodiversity project&rdquo, Santana argues that biodiversity is just an intermediary for &ldquoecological value&rdquo, and Morar, Toadvine, and Bohannan argue that biodiversity &ldquodoes not exhaust what we value in the natural world&rdquo (2015: 24). Santana (2014) provides a clear presentation of this belief and uses it to argue that biodiversity is a misleading and unnecessary step in conservation planning. Biodiversity acts in conservation as an intermediary between all the ways we value the environment and the implementation of surrogate measures for these values, which are then used in conservation planning. Santana suggests we should remove the step of considering biodiversity and directly represent our values in the environment without considering diversity (see also SEP conservation biology entry)

This perspective differs from other frameworks for understanding biodiversity (including the focus on variety, originating in the pre-history of the term), which consider biodiversity as just one of several different conservation values which may trade off against each other (Faith 1995 Norton 2015 Lean 2017). One may choose to prioritise wilderness, or ecosystem services, over biodiversity and decision theoretic measures will be used to weight such considerations.

It is argued by some that biodiversity not only doesn&rsquot represent all the ways the public values nature, it may also hinder the public&rsquos engagement in nature. As a scientific &ldquoproxy&rdquo for natures value it is viewed as a dangerous case of scientism (Morar, Toadvine, & Bohannan 2015 Sarkar 2019). By having the &ldquoveneer of objectivity&rdquo it masks the normative dimension of conservation. The argument is that this can lead to an attitude of leave it to the scientists and shift the responsibility away from the policymakers and the public (Morar, Toadvine, & Bohannan 2015). This is interpreted as representing a dangerous impediment to the democratic dimension of conservation. This is regarded as an interesting question for the interface between conservation theory and public policy.

Eliminativism proposes that there are tensions in the use of the &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo concept, posing the idea that there is a mismatch between the scientific measures of biodiversity and the normative role it plays in conservation science. This perspective therefore contrasts strongly with the historical &ldquovariety&rdquo framing (above), where the scientific measure of biodiversity as variety, and its recognised value to humanity, is the source of normativity claims. [3] Eliminativists argue that, while it would be hard to remove &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo from use in conservation, this is necessary to allow for a clearer connection between humanities interests in the environment and conservation practice (also see the section on eliminating biodiversity in the entry on conservation biology).

5.4 Concluding observations

Sarkar (2019: 375) claims that &ldquothe term &rdquobiodiversity&ldquo and the associated concept(s)&rdquo arose along with the discipline of conservation biology. This accords with the deflationist and eliminativist perspectives that the &ldquobiodiversity story&rdquo began around 1985, with conservation biology guiding the conceptual development of &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo, including its definition and values. This narrative does not address the earlier conceptual history that had articulated normative value of living variation, and so it raises the need for comparisons with that &ldquovariationist&rdquo framing.

The SEP entry conservation biology provides some basis for comparisons, in exploring the idea that conservation biology is all about a still-undefined concept of &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo. In the entry&rsquos section what is biodiversity? there are no citations of the early discussions from the 1970s, and so there is perhaps an under-appreciation of the early ideas of variety as a possible guide to resolving questions of definition. This relates to the interesting issues raised in this section about how the concept/definition of &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo is supposed to cope with the dis-benefits of some individual species. The challenge remains to recognise the possible useful distinction between biodiversity/variety and biospecifics (individual elements).

Consideration of the pre-history of &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo suggests that the conservation biology framing has adopted a story-line that is a disservice to systematics/taxonomy. As noted above, Sarkar (2017, 2019) follows his claim that the &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo term (and concept) were introduced in the context of the establishment of conservation biology, with the claim that

Subsequently, the term and the concept were embraced by other disciplines particularly by taxonomists&hellip. as a conduit for funding that taxonomists wanted to exploit&hellip.

The pre-history, in contrast, reveals how the concept in fact arose through the work of systematists (e.g., Iltis 1972 Anonymous 1974), and was followed by calls by Wilson (1985) and others (see above) for more systematic efforts, in order to fill knowledge gaps (see also Lean, 2017).

The conservation biology framing highlights individual elements that are valuable, with less emphasis on variety. For example, Sarkar argues that conservation logically will focus on &ldquothose aspects of biotic variety that should be conserved. That does not necessarily include all of natural variety&rdquo (Sarkar 2019: 17). Sarkar&rsquos example is revealing:

The human skin hosts thousands of microbial species though interpersonal variability is not as high as in the gut which hosts millions&hellip Should we feel an imperative to conserve all the microbial diversity on the human skin or gut?

This sounds like a powerful example&mdashwho likes germs? The question in reality reveals an absence of consideration of the established benefits and values of variety itself. The gut microbial context is particularly revealing&mdashover the past decade or so, reductions in an individuals&rsquo variety of gut microbes (e.g., as measured using the PD biodiversity measure) is now associated with more than a dozen different human diseases. This biodiversity possibly provides a kind of insurance benefit in healthy individuals (see the link to &ldquoPhylogenetic Diversity and Human Health&rdquo, in Other Internet Resources for other philosophical issues related to microbial biodiversity, see Malaterre 2017).

A related conceptual disconnect is apparent also in Sarkar&rsquos (2017) claim,

for a concept of biodiversity that can be used in practice for instance in the selection of conservation areas, richness was shown to be inadequate in the 1980s.

In contrast, variety or &ldquorichness&rdquo clearly is the desirable property of the set of conservation areas, and we use parts of the biodiversity &ldquocalculus&rdquo (see above), such as the complementarity of individual areas, in order to maximise this property of a nominated set. According to &ldquovariationists&rdquo, the concept of biodiversity as variety/richness is exactly what is needed to address the biodiversity crisis (Faith 2017).

Absence of recognition of the historical link between variety and normativity also suggests contrasts. The idea that &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo is the business of conservation biology, and that biodiversity is good, implies that,

if there is no adequate normative basis for biodiversity conservation, conservation biology becomes a dubious enterprise because its explicit purpose is the conservation of biodiversity.

The storyline is that conservation biology is normatively oriented, and so we have to find a definition of &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo that matches that normativity. In contrast, variationists would suggest the opposite: that &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo is normatively oriented, and then we have to find a &ldquoconservation biology&rdquo that addresses that normativity. Sarkar concludes that

how &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo is defined, that is, what the &ldquoconstituents&rdquo of biodiversity are, depends on cultural choices about which natural values to endorse for conservation.

As noted above, the constituents of interest can include things like sacred groves, and processes like annual migration of Monarch butterflies (Sarkar 2019). Thus, this framing does not recognise biodiversity-as-variety, and its current benefit and normativity instead, it looks for the elements that may be conserved with some normativity, and calls that &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo.

There seems to have been a logical development of arguments in the conservation framing&mdashconservation biology was regarded as normatively all about &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo&mdasha term interpreted as having no clear definition, and so to be defined by whatever conservation might normatively focus on&mdashthen arguments asserted that conservation focuses in practice on lots of things, and that this was a burden too great for the term. Not yet considered, in the development of philosophical arguments for the conservation biology framing, is the possibility that a miss-step was made right at the beginning&mdashignoring the preceding long history of &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo interpreted as variety, with current benefit to humanity, and normative import.

Eliminativists want to get rid of the term &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo, with the claim that this would allow for a clearer connection between humanity&rsquos interests in the environment and conservation practice. But this is just one of at least three proposed fates for the problematic term &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo. Those advocating core biodiversity definitions and values based on variety (call them &ldquovariationists&rdquo, see also Burch-Brown and Archer 2017), might advocate adoption of this basic definition, with the claim that it not only accords best with the extinction crisis and core anthropocentric values (including insurance and investment), but also effectively allows trade-offs and synergies with humanity&rsquos other interests.

A third pathway is discussed in the next section&mdashwhere the fate of the problematic term &ldquobiodiversity&rdquo is not to be eliminativism, nor back-to-basics variationism, but is to be a kind of &ldquoholism&rdquo&mdash&ldquobiodiversity&rdquo expanded in meaning to cover the whole range of &ldquosocio-ecological&rdquo or human-nature links.

The expanding universe

In 1929, an American astronomer working at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in southern California made an important contribution to the discussion of the nature of the universe. Edwin Hubble had been at Mt. Wilson for 10 years, measuring the distances to galaxies, among other things. In the 1920s, he was working with Milton Humason, a high school dropout and assistant at the observatory. Hubble and Humason plotted the distances they had calculated for 46 different galaxies against Slipher's recession velocity and found a linear relationship (see Figure 6) (Hubble, 1929).

Figure 6: The original Hubble diagram. The relative velocity of galaxies (in km/sec) is plotted against distance to that galaxy (in parsecs a parsec is 3.26 light years). The slope of the line drawn through the points gives the rate of expansion of the universe (the Hubble Constant). (Originally Figure 1, from "A Relation Between Distance and Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 15, Issue 3, 1929: p. 172. © Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.) image © The Huntington Library

In other words, their graph showed that more distant galaxies were receding faster than closer ones, confirming the idea that the universe was indeed expanding. This relationship, now referred to as Hubble's Law, allowed them to calculate the rate of expansion as a function of distance from the slope of the line in the graph. This rate term is now referred to as the Hubble constant. Hubble's initial value for the expansion rate was 500 km/sec/Megaparsec, or about 160 km/sec per million-light-years.

Knowing the rate at which the universe is expanding, one can calculate the age of the universe by in essence "tracing back" the most distant objects in the universe to their point of origin. Using his initial value for the expansion rate and the measured distance of the galaxies, Hubble and Humason calculated the age of the universe to be approximately 2 billion years. Unfortunately, the calculation was inconsistent with lines of evidence from other investigations. By the time Hubble made his discovery, geologists had used radioactive dating techniques to calculate the age of Earth at about 3 billion years (Rutherford, 1929) – or older than the universe itself! Hubble had followed the process of science, so what was the problem?

Even laws and constants are subject to revision in science. It soon became clear that there was a problem in the way that Hubble had calculated his constant. In the 1940s, a German astronomer named Walter Baade took advantage of the blackouts that were ordered in response to potential attacks during World War II and used the Mt. Wilson Observatory in Arizona to look at several objects that Hubble had interpreted as single stars. With darker surrounding skies, Baade realized that these objects were, in fact, groups of stars, and each was fainter, and thus more distant, than Hubble had calculated. Baade doubled the distance to these objects, and in turn halved the Hubble constant and doubled the age of the universe. In 1953, the American astronomer Allan Sandage, who had studied under Baade, looked in more detail at the brightness of stars and how that varied with distance. Sandage further revised the constant, and his estimate of 75 km/sec/Megaparsec is close to our modern day estimate of the Hubble constant of 72 km/sec/Megaparsec, which places the age of the universe at 12 to 14 billion years old.

The new estimates developed by Baade and Sandage did not negate what Hubble had done (it is still called the Hubble constant, after all), but they revised it based on new knowledge. The lasting knowledge of science is rarely the work of an individual, as building on the work of others is a critical component of the process of science. Hubble's findings would have been limited to some interesting data on the distance to various stars had it not also built on, and incorporated, the work of Slipher. Similarly, Baade and Sandage's contribution were no less significant because they "simply" refined Hubble's earlier work.

Since the 1950s, other means of calculating the age of the universe have been developed. For example, there are now methods for dating the age of the stars, and the oldest stars date to approximately 13.2 billion years ago (Frebel et al., 2007). The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe is collecting data on cosmic microwave background radiation (Figure 7). Using these data in conjunction with Einstein's theory of general relativity, scientists have calculated the age of the universe at 13.7 ± 0.2 billion years old (Spergel et al., 2003). The convergence of multiple lines of evidence on a single explanation is what creates the solid foundation of scientific knowledge.

Figure 7: Visual representation of the cosmic microwave background radiation, and the temperature differences indicated by that radiation, as collected by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. image © NASA/WMAP Science Team

Major ideas in science are rarely the work of

Antagonism in Biology

a phenomenon reflected primarily in the struggle for existence. Antagonistic relations can be traced most clearly between a predator and its prey (predation) and between a parasite and its host (parasitism). Antagonism also applies to competitive relations (competition)&mdashfor example, competition for light or mineral nutrition among plants and for the same food among animals.

In physiology, similar relations, called antagonism of physiological functions, also occur in the activity of skeletal muscles in some functions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of the autonomic nervous system acting in opposition to the pupil, cardiac acitivty, and so on and in the activity of the nervous system with its two active nerve processes, excitation and inhibition, which constitute a unity of opposites. Antagonism of functions and of regulatory influences is the basis not only of neural reflex regulation but also of humoral, hormonal, and neurohumoral regulation which keep such vital constants as blood pressure and osmotic pressure of blood at a constant level (homeostasis).

Antagonism of ions, drugs, and poisons is manifested by the loss of the particular substance&rsquos toxic or therapeutic (useful) action when injected into the body in combination with another substance&mdasha drug or poison.

Antagonism of microorganisms (also antibiosis), the suppression of some species of microorganisms by others. First observed by L. Pasteur in 1877, it occurs frequently in nature. Under the influence of antagonists, microorganisms cease to grow and reproduce in some cases, their cells lyse or dissolve in other cases, or such biochemical processes within the cells as respiration and synthesis of amino acids become inhibited or cease in still other cases. Antagonism is most pronounced among actinomycetes, bacteria, and fungi. Pseudomonas aeruginosa actively suppresses the plague microorganism. Actinomycetes, which produce nystatin, inhibit the growth of yeasts. Antagonism is also observed among algae and protozoa. The mechanism of antagonism is varied and often obscure. Antagonists more often than not act on their competitors with metabolic products (allelopathy), including antibiotics, or displace the competitors by means of more intensive reproduction or primary utilization of food. Repeated attempts were made as early as the 19th century by V. A. Manassein (1871), A. G. Polotebnov (1872), and others to treat diseases caused by bacteria however, these attempts were unsuccessful because of the use of unpurified preparations. Microbial antagonists are extensively used in the production of antibiotics. Antagonists greatly influence soil fertility. By developing luxuriantly in the soil, useful microbial antagonists inhibit the growth of many phytopathogenic bacteria and fungi, thereby sanitizing the soil. Antagonists can be used in many branches of the food industry.

Author information


Institute for Computational Medicine, NYU Langone Health, New York, NY, 10016, USA

Institute for Computer Science & Department of Biology, Heinrich Heine University, 40225, Düsseldorf, Germany

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IY and MJL wrote the manuscript together. The authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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