REVIEW | Biodiversity & its Histories Conference, Cambridge, March 2017

Laure Joanny reflects on the key debates of the CRASSH conference, 'Biodiversity & Its Histories, held at the University of Cambridge on 24-25th March 2017.

Laure Joanny is a Doctoral Researcher on the BIOSEC project.  She attended the CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities ) conference ‘Biodiversity & Its Histories’ at the University of Cambridge 24-25th March 2017.  Here, she reflects on the key intellectual debates and outcomes of the conference. 


Last week, I travelled to Cambridge to attend the Biodiversity and its Histories conference organised by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH). As you would expect from the title, the room was full of historians but also anthropologists, political scientists, philosophers and some conservation biologists lost in this sea of disciples of the humanities and social sciences.

The conference invited to reflect on what biodiversity is and how we have come to value it. The term ‘biodiversity’ as we use it today was coined during the mid-1980s at the occasion of the first National Forum on Biodiversity in Washington D.C.. Vague enough to be a hit in policy arenas, yet technical enough to keep a scientific legitimacy, the word biodiversity has become central in national and international environmental decision-making.

However, during this conference, presentations focusing on the work of clergymen and pioneering naturalists Gilbert White and John Ray reminded us that the diversity of life has long been admired, notably on theological grounds as proof of God’s power. ‘Biodiversity’ suggests that today, the diversity of animal and plant species as well as the genetic variety within them and the variety of ecosystems they inhabit have come to be considered desirable as such. But the word has come to aggregate many more meanings and therefore the policies that seek to protect biodiversity cover a wide array of interventions with diverging underlying values. Emily Wanderer, for instance, illustrated through her talk the efforts to preserve axolotls in Mexico City; that, in some contexts, it is not only a species or its gene pool that is appreciated but a human way of life compatible with its survival – in this case Chinampa or traditional labour-intensive agriculture.

The technologies and classifications used to study biodiversity appeared key in the kind of biodiversity seen and valued. The sounding lead used by surveyors on the Beagle which took Darwin around the world to the remote-sensing devices promoted by the Biodiversity Observation Network, all brought into light different aspects of life on earth and its evolution.  Similarly, Jasper Montana’s presentation on the diversity of expertise sought by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services demonstrated how the choice of experts and the managerial techniques used to encourage their collaboration influenced the issues brought to the fore of the debate and the content of policy reports on biodiversity.

Finally, David Sepkoski’s and Chris Sandbrook’s talks on the sixth extinction crisis and the rise and fall of ‘biodiversity’ reminded us that the terms used in public debates and policy around the risk species and their habitat face matter a lot, even more so at a time when the issue remains low priority on the political agenda and conservation seeks to mobilise a wider public.

Click here to watch the presentations in full.

Laure can be contacted on