The Pluralistic Ontologies of Biodiversity

The Pluralistic Ontologies of Biodiversity

An earlier column (January 2005) noted that some argue that rather than a "crisis" of biodiversity, the earth instead is transitioning from a biodiversity derived from evolutionary processes to one derived from human design. To those with a worldview based on traditional approaches (say, conservation biologists), there is a crisis as species disappear; to those with a worldview based on human design (say, biotechnologists), there is simply a shift to new forms of anthropogenic life. Both sides can no doubt present data validating their belief structures, but the very existence of such a dialog presents a number of fundamental challenges to current disciplinary and reductionist approaches in general. The next two columns will therefore explore whether any single belief system about the nature of being and reality (the philosophic area of study known as ontology) can be adequate to enable a systemic understanding of complex adaptive systems (CASs).

It is certainly plausible that in general both individuals and institutions habitually underestimate the complexity of the systems that we categorize as environmental. It is worth quoting Michael's comments based on his experience with adaptive management of resource regimes:

Persons and organizations view information from their personal and peer-shared myths and boundaries. More information provides an ever-larger pool out of which interested parties can fish differing positions on the history of what has led to current circumstances, on what is now happening, on what needs to be done, and on what the consequences will be. And more information often stimulates the creation of more options, resulting in the creation of still more information . . . . Indeed, in our current world situation, opening oneself or one's group to a larger "data base" reveals the terrifying prospect that the world is now so complex that on one really understands its dynamics. (D. N. Michael, Barriers and Bridges to Learning in a Turbulent Human Ecology, 1995 )

Moreover, CASs imply a different relationship between the observer and the system than that we usually assume when doing traditional reductionist scientific analysis. Put simply, the boundaries of the system to be studied are not determined by the structure and dynamics of the "external" system itself, but by the query which one poses. To take a simple example, if I ask what the police arrest rate is for New York City, I have implied by my query the existing political boundaries of the City. If, however, I ask about the water supply infrastructure for New York City, I have by implication included at least a third of the State of New York, which has been legally and physically designed to provide water supplies through a complex infrastructure to the City. Similarly, if I ask "how many species have been lost in the United States?" I have defined one type of system. Responsive data will include information on number of species, but not how many bacteria have been bioengineered for industrial production systems. If, however, I ask "What is the unique and irreducible information content of biological systems in the United States, and how has it changed over the past 15,000 years?" I have posed a far different and more complicated query, embodying a completely different concept of how to measure the profusion of life. Thus, in framing a query regarding biodiversity the researcher defines what elements of a huge pool of data he or she will consider to be part of the relevant system, as well as the relevant boundaries for the inquiry. This necessarily involves at least two inseparable but very different ontologies: the personal and cultural normative ontology the individual researcher brings to the query, which defines a set of boundaries that, from the perspective of the overall systems, are essentially arbitrary, and the "scientific" and more objective process the researcher applies to the particular study.

This condition is not amenable to simplification. It is not that conflicting ontologies reflect an immaturity or deficiency in either the discipline or the researcher. Rather, the existence of valid but mutually exclusive ontologies in such cases reflect the nature of the underlying system itself, and the fact that its true complexity lies beyond our current ability to explicate. While particular ontologies may indeed be adequate for specific studies or research areas, no single ontology is sufficient in itself to capture a dominant totality of what actually exists; any ontology simple enough to be expressed is too limited to reflect the true nature of the CAS to which it purportedly applies. The implications of this understanding are profound, and some will be discussed briefly in the next column.

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Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.