The Limits of Quantification in Valuing Biodiversity


Professor of Philosophy, Division of Humanities, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida

What is the value of the biological diversity of the planet? That question reminds me of a game we used to play at ice cream socials and church picnics when I was growing up in the Midwest. Someone on the entertainment committee would count an assortment of screws and gimcracks, or nuts and bolts, and put them into a mason jar. At the Christmas party, it was pecans, walnuts, and hickory nuts. Everybody else had to guess: How many whatchamacallits are in the jar?

Pretend we’re having an ice cream social on an improved version of the space shuttle. Someone looks down and says, “What’s the value of the life on that planet down there?” The closest guess wins a door prize.

But our question is tougher than nuts and bolts. Recently, scientists discovered bones from a dinosaur they have called seismosaurus. That animal was 18 feet tall, more than 100 feet long, and weighed 80 tons. The diversity in size between a seismosaurus and the smallest microbe is staggering. And I used to be thrown off when they put washers of two different sizes in the mason jar! Given the diversity in size among species, not to mention the fact that many species live inside others, it is not surprising that scientists have left themselves some latitude in their guesses as to how many species there are: they estimate that there are between 5 and 30 million species.

That’s O.K. I never did very well at the guessing game myself. One time I guessed that a jar contained 452 nuts and bolts. The correct answer was more than 2,000. I won the booby prize for being the farthest off; my prize was the jar and its contents.

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