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Category:
Life Science

Lecturer:
David Sepkoski, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Place:
EMBL, Large Operon, Meyerhofstraße 1

Host:
Halldór Stefánsson

Description:
Abstract Why do we care about preserving biodiversity? At the beginning of the 21st century biodiversity has come to be seen as an intrinsic scientific and cultural value. In other words, biological diversity—the sheer multiplicity and heterogeneity of living things—is now understood to have an inherent value that is not reducible to the utilitarian or aesthetic worth of any particular individual species: the value of diversity is diversity itself. Extinction plays a central role in this understanding of biodiversity, since diversity is something that is understood to be fragile and tenuous, constantly endangered by the threat of loss. Whereas most historians who have examined this phenomenon have placed the modern biodiversity movement in the context of a history of conservation biology and endangered species protection, I want to frame it in a new perspective. This talk will examine the influence of biological theories about the nature and dynamics of extinction—and especially mass extinction—on the current valuation of biological diversity. I will focus particularly on the ways that new understandings of extinction in the past—for example, the extinction of the dinosaurs—have converged with scientific and cultural anxieties about the present—the specters of global warming, nuclear war, and biodiversity loss. I will argue that this new model of extinction has played a prominent conceptual and rhetorical role in debates surrounding the current biodiversity crisis, which I will examine in critical historical perspective. Biography David Sepkoski is (since 2012) a Senior Research Scholar in Department II of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Prior to coming to the MPIWG, he held faculty positions at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and at Oberlin College in Ohio. His research interests have primarily been in the history of evolutionary biology, paleontology, and data practices in natural history. He has published several books, most recently Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline (University of Chicago Press, 2012). He is currently finishing a book on the cultural and scientific history of extinction and biodiversity.

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