Message at the Opening of the 20th WCSP Biodiversity Symposium

Message at the Opening of the 20th WCSP Biodiversity Symposium

Ben S. Malayang III, PhD | Silliman University

Recent works on conservation explore how we think when we do environmental science.[1]

Let me focus on three most recent:

  1. Frodeman (2011) talks of how our approaches to doing environmental science are mired in a morass of (1) Kantian assumptions (on the inherent value of disciplinal specializations);(2) Humboldtian snootiness (of academic research being by and for academics); and (3) Cartesian axioms (on the infinity of knowledge possibilities).
  2.  Reyers et al. (2011) assesses the progress of ecology against a trans-disciplinary knowledge hierarchy comprising of at its base the empirical (what we can know), then pragmatic (what we can do with what we know), then normative(what we should do with what we know), then, finally, at its apex, thepurposive (why we should do some of those we can do with what we know, and not others).
  3. Lele and Kurien (2011)focus on issues relating to how interdisciplinary research quintessentially straddles the social-natural divide. They reviewed a number of interdisciplinary researches on tropical forests, to understand the challenges involved in doing interdisciplinary research and the manner in which the challenges might be addressed.

These three papers are about how we think when we do environmental science, or ecology, or conservation. And they challenge us about how we should be thinking if we were to better understand the intricate and complexdynamics and relationships in our world of life (the biosphere) and our world of human affairs and cultures (the ethnosphere).

Frodeman refers to three classical philosophers of knowledge and their influence on contemporary science pursuits. Immanuel Kant contends that knowledge has breath and depth. No oneperson or group can master the whole range of any one species of knowledge. To fully and properly acquire and appreciate knowledge, it must be pursued in increasingly detailed specializations. Knowledge pursuits must be by division of labor in which specialists focus on particular areas of specialization and crossing disciplinal lines would merit disdain and erosion of credibility and confidence. Humboldt argues that to create a momentum in knowledge building, research is to be done by those who value knowledge and these would be teachers and academics in schools and universities. Knowledge must have producers catering to a market of knowledge users, mainly in academe. Rene Descartes proposes that knowledge is a vast range of possible permutations of self-evident truths, which can create limitless extrapolations of knowable reality. To Frodeman, these three provide paradigmatic inhibitors to thinking across disciplines, or beyond disciplinal boundaries and specializations, so that environmental science – and certainly ecology and conservation – tend to be more confined to summations of knowledge rather than integration. Some interesting possibilities can be indeed surmised from Frodeman’s observations:

  • Might investigations on extinctions to be necessarily confined to specific specializations like biology or ecology? What if extinctions are driven together by population dynamics, genetic contaminations, and markets?
  • How might biological or ecological truths be properly appreciated against relevant or pertinent truths in other disciplines like economics, political science, sociology, history, religion, and morals?
  • How mightthe internalvalidity of different disciplines be made to achieve higher external validity of conservation knowledge and approaches across different natural and social environments and circumstances of wildlife?

To Frodeman, overcoming the trilogy of Kantian, Humboldtian and Cartesian assumptions would be critical to better understanding the complex natural and social circumstances attending environmental science, ecology and wildlife conservation. The full value of integration of knowledge and integrative thinking cannot be approximated by sheer summation of knowledge or byadding up thoughts and facts.

The value of integration over summation is affirmed by Reyers et al., who contend that real progress in knowledge building occurs only when in all four levels of the knowledge hierarchy,knowledge has been successfully coordinated across disciplines and topics in ways directed by a unifying rationale and intention introduced at the purposive level down. They suggest that as conservation techniques get better informed by integrative empirical investigations, and better techniques in turn improve normative efforts like conservation planning and management, then eventually enrich conservation values and doctrine building at the purposive level of the hierarchy, improved values and doctrines can cascade down the hierarchy to better inform and coordinate normative, pragmatic and empirical activities supporting conservation. Thinking across (not within and confined to) disciplines, and across (not within and confined to) levels of knowledge, would make tremendous contributions to enriching conservation undertakings.

Lele and Kurien note that challenges to interdisciplinary and integrative forestry research stem from differences in implicit values, theories, and epistemological constructions across disciplines. They looked at two core interdisciplinary questions on tropical forestry research (one, the causes of forest loss and degradation, and, two, the impacts of forest loss and degradation on society) to understand how interdisciplinary researchers have grappled with these challenges. They suggest that failures to achieve a level of integrative thinking that breach “natural-social divides”(that often characterize discipline-centered analyses) , can lead to lower levels of “internalization of findings”. Consequently, so much of what might prove valuable knowledge, is lost.

So, we ask, how might we build capacities for integrative thinking, to then improve wildlife conservation in our country, and elsewhere?

My take is:

  • Think across and beyond disciplines.


  • Stretch conservation knowledge across and beyond the confines of academic and technical specializations, using specialist knowledge as building blocks for wider landscapes of conservation techniques, values and doctrines.


  • Fuse knowledge, not merely add them up into wobbly stacks of information.


  • And build competence – and moral courage – to do these.

[1] See Journal of Environmental Conservation, 2010, 2011.