The Reciprocal Links between Evolutionary-Ecological Sciences and Environmental Ethics

Thinking of Biology

The Reciprocal Links between
Evolutionary-Ecological Sciences
and Environmental Ethics
BY RICARDO ROZZI

onfronted with the current environmental crisis,
the academic community faces a conceptual and
practical problem of dissociation: Ecologists
app oach nature with the aim of understanding it, whereas
environmental ethicists approach nature asking how we
should relate to it, or inhabit it. Ecology looks for the "is" of
nature, and environmental ethics seeks an "ought" with
respect to nature. How can these still largely disconnected
and yet parallel courses be bridged? How can the is of
ecologists and the ought of eco-philosophers be interrelat-
ed? More basically, how can the links between the cogni-
tive-scientific and the practical-ethical spheres be recovered?
To describe my approach to these questions, I begin
with an illustration. Figure la depicts at its center my the-
sis: that the ways in which humans dwell in the natural
world inspire the ways in which we understand, explain,
and look at the natural world. Conversely, the ways in
which we represent nature (e.g., through scientific theo-
ries) constitute a kind of text or scenario that inspires our
attitudes, behaviors, and ways of inhabiting nature. There-
fore, changes in the scientific sphere suggest changes in the
ethical sphere, and vice versa. If the way of dwelling in the
natural world is viewed as an environmental ethos, we can
in a broad sense refer to this ethos as an environmental
ethic. If the way of understanding the natural world is
called a science, we can broadly refer to this understanding
as evolutionary-ecological sciences. With these defini-
tions, the initial thesis illustrated in Figure la can be refor-
mulated by affirming that environmental ethics and envi-
ronmental sciences influence each other in a reciprocal
and dynamic way. Ethics and science establish a dialectic
interrelationship that evolves historically through mutual
and successive modifications.
The continuous and reciprocal influences between eco-
logical theories and ethical norms respecting nature take
place within two broader environments: the cultural world
and the natural world (Figure la). The reciprocal and
dynamic influences between environmental ethics and sci-
ences are, therefore, open to the influences of broader con-
texts. Both sociological and natural phenomena exert sig-
Ricardo Rozzi (e-mail: rozzir@ecostudies.org) coordinates the eco-
logical education program at the Institute of Ecological Research
Chiloe, Chile (Ancud, Chile), and serves as Regional Representative
for South America in the International Society of Environmental
Ethics. He is currently at the Departments of Philosophy and of
Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Connecticut, Storrs,
CT 06269-3043. 1999 American Institute of Biological Sciences.

nificant influences on the genesis of scientific conceptions
of and ethical attitudes toward nature. Even more, as Fig-
ure la shows, the natural world constitutes a broader envi-
ronment in which culture occurs.
In this article, I illustrate the reciprocal relationships
between sciences and environmental ethics by examining
the Darwinian theory of evolution and discussing its impli-
cations for ecologists and ethicists. Darwinian theory rep-
resents only an illustrative case; similar analyses could be
done for other ecological theories, such as ecosystem the-
ory or vegetation succession. However, the Darwinian the-
ory of evolution is ideal for discussion of the interrela-
tionships between ecological sciences and ethics, for three
reasons. First, the social influences and historical circum-
stances that led Darwin to formulate his theory of natural
selection have been examined and debated more than those
leading to any other theory in the history of biology. Sec-
ond, Darwinian theory constitutes a foundational basis for
major strains of both ecology and environmental ethics.
Third, Darwinian theory can stimulate contrasting envi-
ronmental values and attitudes. It can encourage respect-
ful treatment of the natural environment by weakening
anthropocentrism in modern society with metaphors such
as the "ecological web of life" and "the tree of the origin of
life." But it can also favor patterns of overconsumption and
exploitation of the natural environment by strengthening
individualism and the idea of progress with metaphors such
as the "struggle for existence" and "natural selection."
Interrelations among science and ethics
in Darwin's theory
To understand the complex dialectic between environ-
mental ethics and ecological-evolutionary sciences that
take place within broader cultural and natural environ-
ments, I illustrate the case of Darwinian theory by modi-
fying Figure la into Figure lb. I begin by describing how
culture, the natural world, and ethics influenced Darwin's
formulation of the evolutionary theory (Figure ib, arrows
1, 2 and 3, respectively). Then I analyze how Darwin's the-
ory has, in turn, influenced ethics, modern culture, and
human impact on the natural environment (Figure ib,
arrows 4, 5 and 6, respectively). Finally, I discuss how an
understanding of the reciprocal influences between sci-
ence and ethics contributes to a cultural transformation in
our modes of viewing and relating to the natural world.
Influences of culture on science. Three distinct kinds
of cultural influence were of particular relevance for Dar-

November 1999 / Vol. 49 No. 11 * BioScience 911

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Rozzi, Ricardo, 1960-. The Reciprocal Links between Evolutionary-Ecological Sciences and Environmental Ethics. [Reston, Virginia]. UNT Digital Library. http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc130190/. Accessed July 14, 2014.