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Mermans Ely | Writing-Up Fellow
2021-10-15 - 2022-10-14 | Research area: Philosophy of Biology
The Role of Non-Epistemic, Ethical Values in the Keystone Species Debate

In the Western ecological and conservation sciences, keystone species might be generally defined as biological species whose removal from the ecological community they are part of is likely to produce radical changes within and on that community (e.g. changes in species composition, diversity or interactions, changes in the community’s structure and stability conditions, change in the community’s external aspects, etc.). North-American examples of keystone species I am interested may include sea stars (Pisaster ochraceus), sea otters (Enhydra lutris), and gray wolves (Canis lupus) – i.e. keystone predatory species. Despite the fact that scientists and conservationists have approached keystone species in various ways, the disappearance of the latter has often been negatively valued. In the contrary, changes associated with keystone species addition have been positively so.

My KLI research project questions the nature and legitimacy of the aims and values which have been involved in the evolution of the keystone species concept, and of the resultant evaluative assessments of keystone species, between the 1960’s and the beginning of the 2000’s in the ecological and conservation sciences. I first show that while there might have been a general trend toward the positive valuation of keystone species, neither the latter nor the ways keystone species have been conceptualized through this period involved the same epistemic and non-epistemic values and aims. Yet, following feminist philosophers of science, I argue that non-epistemic values and aims, in particular ethical values and conservation aims, are no more peripheral to the practices of more knowledge-oriented research communities (e.g. community ecology) than they are to more action-oriented research communities (e.g. conservation biology). I henceforth suggest a theoretical, philosophical-based approach to assess the way ethical arguments can be involved in scientific discussions with regards to concept uses, variations, and evolution within and through disciplines.