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BIODIVERSITY EDUCATION

Ultimately, nature and biodiversity must be conserved for their own sakes, not because they have present utilitarian value … the fundamental arguments for conserving nature must be spiritual and aesthetic, motivated by feelings that well up from our deepest beings.

John Terborgh (1999)

Background

“Conservation genetics” has become a popular discipline, as evidenced, for example, by two edited compilations (Loeschcke et al., 1994; Avise and Hamrick, 1996), a teaching textbook (Frankham et al., 2002), and a scientific journal (initiated in 2001), all bearing within their titles that exact two-word phrase. Historically, the field was associated mostly with studies of inbreeding depression and the loss of heterozygosity in small populations, but its purview has expanded greatly in recent years to include a wide range of empirical and theoretical studies that basically attempt to illuminate how patterns of genetic diversity are distributed within and among individuals, kinship groups, populations, species, and supraspecific taxa (Avise, in press). Such investigations (typically using molecular markers) routinely include genetic appraisals of the following: plant and animal mating systems, behaviors, and natural histories; magnitudes and patterns of population structure due to past and present demographic factors; gene flow, genetic drift, and various categories of natural selection; other evolutionary phenomena such as patterns and processes of speciation, hybridization, introgression, and phylogenetics; forensic analyses of wildlife and wildlife products; and many additional genetic topics that are often highly germane to the principles and the practice of conservation biology.

All of these sentiments are standard wisdom among modern biologists. So too is the realization that a strong societal preference exists for saving species that are large, attractive, or emotionally evocative, compared with those that are small, drab, or unobtrusive. Almost inevitably, conservation efforts thus become biased toward “charismatic megabiota” (Clark and May, 2002). I suggest another role for conservation genetics that is somewhat more amorphous, but nevertheless has a huge potential to elicit additional public support for meaningful societal action on behalf of nature and biodiversity protection. I am referring to a compelling educational mission: to enthuse students of all ages, including the general public as well as political, social, and religious leaders, about nature’s countless underappreciated marvels.

Nearly all creatures (including the “charismatically challenged”) have fascinating natural-history stories to tell, and scientists as well as natural



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