The proper response

Conservation biologists Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider:

“We must first define what we mean by natural. Though one of the most ambiguous in the conservation lexicon, the term natural persists because it signifies something of great esthetic and spiritual significance to many people. Naturalness may also have scientific values, not the least of which is that it provides a buffer for our ignorance. That is, natural forests have ecological qualities that we have barely begun to fathom and have no idea of how to replicate.”

(Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, 1994. 189.)

Elsewhere, Reed Noss and co-authors Michael O’Connell and Dennis Murphy write:

“ECOSYSTEMS ARE NOT ONLY MORE COMPLEX THAN WE THINK, BUT MORE COMPLEX THAN WE CAN THINK. This statement, attributed to ecologist Frank Egler, reflects the tremendous complexities scientists encounter when trying to understand the organisms and systems they study. Nature at all levels of biological organization – genes, populations, species, communities, ecosystems, landscapes – encompasses many phenomena that cannot be perceived, measured, or understood using the traditional methods of scientific inquiry. Hence, uncertainty is high for all results obtained. New developments in science are not likely to break down entirely the perceptual barriers. Even with the most sophisticated rational tools imaginable, reductionism and other rational approaches to understanding Nature have their limits.

“Although ecologists often have a good general understanding of natural ecosystems, there are always surprises. The proper response to lack of full knowledge about Nature is humility . . . ”

(The Science of Conservation Planning: Habitat Conservation Under the Endangered Species Act. Island Press, 1997. 76.)

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