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Philosophy and the Environment

The Dialectical Links Between
Environmental Ethics and Sciences

Ricardo Rozzi
University of Connecticut

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ABSTRACT: Ecologists formulate their scientific theories influenced by ethical values, and in turn, environmental ethicists value nature based on scientific theories. Darwinian evolutionary theory provides clear examples of these complex links, illustrating how these reciprocal relationships do not constitute a closed system, but are undetermined and open to the influences of two broader worlds: the sociocultural and the natural environment. On the one hand, the Darwinian conception of a common evolutionary origin and ecological connectedness has promoted a respect for all forms of life. On the other hand, the metaphors of struggle for existence and natural selection appear as problematic because they foist onto nature the Hobbesian model of a liberal state, a Malthusian model of the economy, and the productive practice of artificial selection, all of which reaffirm modern individualism and the profit motive that are at the roots of our current environmental crisis. These metaphors were included in the original definitions of ecology and environmental ethics by Haeckel and Leopold respectively, and are still pervasive among both ecologists and ethicists. To suppose that these Darwinian notions, derived from a modern-liberal worldview, are a fact of nature constitutes a misleading interpretation. Such supposition represents a serious impediment to our aim of transforming our relationship with the natural world in order to overcome the environmental crisis. To achieve a radical transformation in environmental ethics, we need a new vision of nature.

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Ecological theories and environmental ethics are reciprocally and dynamically linked. Inquiry into this thesis can provide epistemological and ethical insights for ecologists and environmental philosophers. First, for ecologists it clarifies that environmental ethics is not purely a normative corpus that we should adopt under the pressure of an environmental crisis. Ethical conceptions participate in the genesis and evaluation of ecological theories. Second, environmental philosophers have tended to focus on how ecological sciences could inform environmental ethics. I emphasize, in turn, that it is valuable to analyze and to discuss how ethical conceptions can and do inform ecological sciences.


Ecologists approach nature with the aim of understanding it. Environmental ethicists approach nature asking how we should relate to it, or live in and with it. Two disciplines: ecology looking for the is of nature, environmental ethics seeking for an ought in respect to it. How to bridge these discrete, but parallel courses? How to link the is of ecologists and the ought of eco-philosophers?

I propose a circle of continuous reciprocal influences between ecological theories and ethical norms respecting nature. This is an open circle taking place within two broader environments: the socio-cultural and the natural worlds. I want to illustrate these proposed reciprocal relationships looking at the Darwinian theory of evolution, and then discuss their implications for ecologists and ethicists. I want to make clear, however, that Darwinian theory represents only an illustrative case; similar analyses could be done for other ecological theories, such as ecosystem theory or vegetation succession.

I have chosen the case of the Darwinian theory of evolution because: 1) the examination of the social influences and circumstances that led Darwin to formulate his theory of natural selection form one of the most studied and debated areas in the history of science; 2) Darwinian theory constitutes a foundational basis for major strains of both ecology and environmental ethics; 3) it presents contrasting connotations in respect to Modern values and attitudes that have promoted an abuse of human society over the natural environment. Darwinian theory diminishes this "abuse" by weakening anthropocentrism with metaphors like the "entangled bank" and "the tree of life," but it can favor patterns of over-consumption and exploitation of the natural environment by strengthening individualism and the idea of progress with the metaphors of "struggle for existence" and "natural selection."

This last point appears to me particularly relevant for environmental ethics. If we are disenchanted with Modernity, or if we accept that attitudes and practices promoted by Modern Western civilization lie at the roots of our current environmental crisis, then we need a cultural transformation that leaves behind that state of civilization. But, a major limitation to this step arises when scientific theories of nature are still based upon values and concepts central to the Modern worldview. As I have mentioned, that is the case of the Darwinian notions of struggle for existence and natural selection. We can see how pervasive these Darwinian notions have been by looking at two texts that can be considered as foundational for ecological sciences and environmental ethics, respectively: Generelle Morphologie der Organismen by Ernst Haeckel, and "The Land Ethic" by Aldo Leopold.

When Haeckel coined the term ecology in the middle of the nineteenth century, he defined it in the following terms: "By ecology we mean the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature,… in a word, ecology is the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence." (1)

When Aldo Leopold coined the term land ethics in the middle of this century, he defined ethics in the following terms: "An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct." (2)

These seminal texts illustrate how both ecological sciences and environmental ethics contain, at the moment of their birth, theoretical notions that retain links with the kind of Modern thinking we need to leave behind. In the first text, Haeckel still defines ecology within the sphere of Linnaeus’ metaphor of the "economy of nature," projecting a Modern economic paradigm onto nature. Both Haeckel and Leopold assume that the struggle for existence is the essential state of nature. Leopold presupposes this struggle and an anti-social state of being as inherent dispositions, which ethics evolves to restrict. Thus, ethics is conceived as a restriction that is imposed over primitive individualistic tendencies. But, the struggle for existence is first and foremost a particular mode of representation of natural relationships derived from the Modern-Liberal social relationships, as exemplified by Hobbes. Some ecologists and environmental ethicists, even today, suppose this essentially social worldview to be a fact of nature as well. This misleading interpretation represents a serious impediment to our aim of transforming our relationship with the natural world. If we continue apprehending nature through the lenses of this Modern worldview, we will remain trapped in its forms of representation and, therefore, in its forms of relationship.

It is important to note, however, that both Darwinian evolutionary theory and Leopoldian environmental ethics transcend the image of nature as a struggle for existence, proposing a broader spectrum of forms of relationship. Further, ecology derives holistic theories from Darwin’s work.

In order to understand the complex dialectic between environmental ethics and ecology, and to explore a way to effect a cultural transformation in our relationship with nature, I want to illustrate with the Figure bellow and brief descriptions how British Modern culture and society, the natural environment, and ethics could have influenced the formulation of the Darwinian theory, and then how this theory would have reflexively influenced each of those three elements.


From culture and society to science

I find it most significant that the basic notion of evolution came into Darwin’s family via philosophy, more particularly from the work of David Hume. The first unequivocal evolutionary pronouncement made by Erasmus Darwin is in a paragraph in his book Zoonimia, where he refers to a passage of the Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion, in which Hume "concludes that the world itself might have been generated rather than created." (3) Philosophy also appears to have stimulated the use of the term "evolution" by Charles Darwin. The word "evolution" is mentioned only once in the Origin of Species. But, after Herbert Spencer made the term more current, Darwin employed it frequently in The Descent of Man and other works to refer to his theory. Spencer, in turn, noted that he borrowed the conception of life as progressive evolution from Samuel Coleridge’s essay The Theory of Life. Finally, Coleridge seems to have adopted this notion from Friedrich Schelling. This flux of the term "evolution" illustrates how philosophy provided this basic notion for the conception of Darwinian theory.

From a historical perspective, it is also remarkable how the notion of evolution was developed synchronously in diverse natural and social sciences -such as geology and astronomy, or Positivism and Marxism- with particular force since the late 18th century. Cultural and social influences on the conception of the evolutionary theory of natural selection came to a culmination with its simultaneous formulation by Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. The degree of similarity was such that Darwin was astounded when he first received Wallace’s manuscript, saying that he "never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had had my MS sketch written in 1842, he could not have made better a short abstract." (4)

In respect to the influences of the cultural and social environment on the formulation of the theory of natural selection, Darwin explicitly refers to two sources that convey the economic and productive spirit of industrial society: the economic theory of Thomas Malthus, and the analogy with artificial selection. In respect to the first, he writes in the Introduction of The Origin of the Species that his theory of natural selection is "the doctrine of Malthus applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms." (5) In respect to the analogy between natural and artificial selection, Darwin affirms that:

Man can and does select the variations given to him by nature, and does accumulate them in any desired manner. He thus adapts animals and plants for his own benefits and pleasure… There is no obvious reason why the principles which have acted so efficiently under domestication should not have acted under nature. In the preservation of favoured individuals and races, during the constantly-recurrent Struggle for Existence, we see the most powerful and ever-acting means of selection. (6)

These passages illustrate clearly how Darwin took two conceptual and practical frameworks of his society and saw no reason not to project them onto nature, in order to explain biological evolution. This projection was promptly noted by Frederick Engels, who in 1880 wrote in his book The Dialectic of Nature that:

The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to organic nature ... of the economic theory of competition. Once this feat has been accomplished ... it is very easy to transfer these theories back again from the natural world to the history of society, and altogether too naive to maintain thereby these assertions have been proved as eternal natural laws of society. (7)

Engels’ interpretation of the social and cultural influences on Darwinian theory has been extensively developed by Marxist historians and philosophers during this century. Although I basically agree with this sociological interpretation, I emphasize that these relationships do not exhaust Darwinian theory, because these influences between culture and science are only partial and not necessary; there are other sources nourishing the theory of evolution.

From natural history to the theory of evolution

In his Autobiography Charles Darwin emphatically affirms that: "The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career." Aware about the relevance of both observation and scientific critical reading and discussions, he continues his autobiographic account:

I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind; I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved… The investigation of the geology of all places visited was far more than reasoning comes into play… On first examining a new district, nothing can appear more hopeless than the chaos of rocks; but by recording the stratification and nature of the rocks and fossils at many points, always reasoning and predicting what will be found elsewhere, light soon begins to dawn on the district, and the structure of the wholes becomes more or less intelligible. I had brought with me the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which I studied attentively; and the book was of the highest service to me… (8)

This acute and expressive passage dissipates any doubt about how important Darwin considered his natural history observations and experiments, and how at the same time he continuously took inspiration and contrasted his empirical conclusions with possible explanations and theories formulated by other members of the scientific community. Even more, Darwin manifested public admiration for and gratitude to those who inspired and accompanied him in the meticulous course leading to the formulation of his evolutionary theory. Later in his Autobiography he writes about his geologist’s master that "I saw more of Lyell than of any other man… His mind was characterised [sic]… by clearness, caution, sound judgement, and good deal of originality. When I made any remark to him on Geology, he never rested until he saw the whole case clearly, and often made me see it more clearly than I had before." (9)

Looking onto the former autobiographical passages from a post-Kuhnian point of view, it appears remarkable in respect to Darwin’s own understanding of his natural history and scientific work, his awareness on the relevance not only of the empirical work but of the dialogue he maintained with his "epistemic community." Even more, in the first section I provided evidence showing how fully aware Darwin was about key insights for the preparation of his evolutionary theory that came from broader "cultural and social communities." I propose to include within Darwin’s epistemic community the spheres of philosophy (such as Humean), economical theories (such as Malthusian) and practices (such as artificial selection). This integration should help us to overcome dichotomous splits between "internal and external histories of science," "naturalistic or sociological schools." Instead it invites to articulate multiple levels of experiences involved in Darwin scientific work, such as natural history, experiments, reading of scientific documents and broader cultural discussions.

From ethics to science

Much has been discussed about the split between fact and value, between is and ought. Eco-philosophers such as Baird Callicott have opened a space for relating the is of ecology to the ought of environmental ethics. (10)

I want to propose that sciences and ethics are linked by reciprocal influences. Therefore we need to analyze this problematic and complex relationship between science and ethics, not only going from is to ought, but also from ought to is. To what extent did the individualistic ethics of Victorian Society, the Hobbesian conception of the liberal state, the Malthusian conception of a social struggle for existence, influence Darwin’s theory? This has been long debated. And we can still find signs of the influence of such originally social paradigms on ecological theories in our own day. For example, the ecologist Jared Diamond (1978), who has also worked for biological conservation, wrote some years ago:

For a century after the publication of On the Origin of Species, field biologists took literally the expression "the struggle for existence"… They looked around them to see individuals of different species but similar trophic roles fighting, rarely saw it, and concluded that competition was unimportant. Just imagine what errors you would commit if … you would see Hertz and Avis counters adjacent at airports, would note that the ladies dressed in yellow were not fighting with the ladies dressed in red, and would conclude that Hertz and Avis do not compete. In fact, Hertz and Avis compete intensively for a shared resource, customers. But the mechanism of competition consists of trying harder for customers so as to starve out the rival’s resource base, and not of fighting... (11)

As Engels pointed out, this kind of analogy between biological and economic competition allows for a reciprocal reinforcing. Nature is seen through "economical lenses." The result is a scientific legitimization of liberal ideology. Its competitive economic and social project is legitimated by appealing to a nature constructed in its own image.

From science to ethics

As we see, Darwinism reinforced the social struggle for existence, or survival of the fittest, promoting competition among persons, institutions, and countries. On the other hand, we find that Aldo Leopold borrowed from Darwin the metaphors of the entangled bank, emphasizing the ecological connectedness between all living beings, and the tree of life, which supports a sense of kinship among all biological species. These are the Darwinian foundations for Leopold’s Land Ethic that promotes a sense of community that goes beyond human society, and includes the whole biotic community. (12)

From science to culture and society

Darwinian theory promoted a revolution as monumental as the Copernican revolution. In both, human beings were evicted from their central place in nature. The theory of evolution disabuses human beings of the belief that we are uniquely created in God’s image. In place of that belief, it represents humans as natural beings differing only in degree from all living beings.

But it is also interesting to note that in other respects Darwin still retained links with Victorian values, such as the notion of progress, as expressed in the following passage in The Descent of Man:

The remarkable success of the English as colonists over other European nations, which is well illustrated by comparing the progress of the Canadians of English and French extraction, has been ascribed to their "daring and persistent energy;" but who can say how the English gained their energy. There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection. (13)

From science to the natural environment

Charles Darwin marveled at ecological "web of complex relations." In a famous passage of the Origin of Species he described how red clover plants depended upon humble-bees for pollination. Populations of the latter are in turn controlled by field mice that destroy the bee’s nests. The number of mice depends in turn on the number of cats in the neighborhood. Thus, population of red clover would depend directly on pollinators species, indirectly on predators of these pollinators, and more indirectly on predators of these predators that destroy bee’s nests. In his beautiful and inspiring depiction of complex inter-relations Darwin emphasizes that:

[H]umble-bees alone visit the red clover .., as other bees cannot reach the nectar. Hence I have very little doubt, that if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. (14)

Today this comprehension of interdependence and interaction among species represents a key notion for conservation-biology approaches at the community and ecosystem levels. (15) In this form Darwinian theory, mediated by novel ecological disciplines, contributes to modulate our impact on the natural environment.

Implications of the reciprocal influences

The presented system of interrelationships has both epistemological and ethical implications. In respect to epistemology, it shows how Darwinian theory conveys values of the society within it was conceived. Even more, Darwinian theory could be interpreted as functional to particular social goals. For example, when Darwin writes that:

If it profits a plant to have its seeds more and more widely disseminated by the wind, I can see no greater difficulty in this being effected through natural selection, than in the cotton-planter increasing and improving by selection the down in the pods on his cotton-trees. (16)

We could see in his analogy an image of economic production. Natural selection appears to enhance the plant’s profits in the economy of nature. Rather than an essential property of nature, this analogy could be interpreted as an explanation that is useful to the management purposes of the planter because it facilitates him the design and implementation of practices oriented toward an increment in the productivity of pods.

I want to recall, however, that the reciprocal influences between science and ethics are underdetermined. As we have seen, a given scientific theory can inspire different and opposite ethics. Besides, the formulation of scientific theories is subject to innumerable and unpredictable factors, such as the imagination of the scientist. Further, in addition to sociological influences, observation and experimentation with the natural world also informs theories, and Darwin’s work is deeply engaged in an internal history of science –sensu Lakatos- as documented by his extensive correspondence with Charles Lyell. But, Darwinian texts express manifest links between science and ethics, and by interpreting them as open and underdetermined, we can address these links without falling into a kind of Lysenkoist dogmatism in going from the ought to the is.

In respect to ethics, ecological theories can reinforce or undermine cultural and social values. Thus, ecologists can contribute either to a cultural retrenchment or to a cultural transformation. Some ways for looking at nature appear more resonant than others with the style of life and kind of relations we want to establish with the natural world. If we want to maximize profits, Darwin’s cotton-planter analogy would be an appropriate way to represent nature. But, if we want to free ourselves from the notion of progress and profits, other evolutionary analogies may appear more resonant. For example, when the Chilean biologists Maturana and Varela propose their evolutionary theory of "natural drift" they evoke the image of a vagabond sculpture walking through the world without any direction. (17) In a broader sense, I also want to restate that the analysis developed here could be valuable for any ecological theory; evolution is just a case. In ecosystem theory the fundamental notion that "the whole is more than the sum of the parts" has been borrowed from holistic philosophy. In turn, ecosystem theory has been a reference for the support of approaches to environmental ethics, such as deep ecology. (18)

A systematic analysis of the resonance between scientific theories and desired social projects could represent a valuable approach for confronting current environmental crisis. It could also provide a guide for reflection on how we want to live and inhabit the natural world. We can go beyond a "problem solver" approach that would attempt to overcome the present environmental crisis as a matter of survival. Mere survival is not enough. We have the chance to reflect on and to invent our modes of existence. In the more pedestrian problem-solving approach, the dominant paradigm is brutally economic and instrumental. Last year (1997), ecological economists attempted a valuation of "goods and services" provided by the biosphere, and came up with an impressive mean figure of 33 trillion dollars per year. (19) In my opinion this kind of exercise continues reinforcing instrumentalism and resourcism. However, economy is only one among the infinite possible paradigms for living and knowing. By relating scientific theories and explanations to particular cultural contexts, we are invited to look at the diverse Western and non-Western cultural traditions, and, through respectful dialogue avoid the overriding power of the allegedly objective Modern economic- scientific-technocratic order.

My analysis is attempted to make explicit the links between science and society, between the ways we know and live. Worldviews are not pure cognitive frameworks, but are stories that we enact. In front of us, we have the most precious possibility for building our own theoretical and practical modes of relating to the natural world. Environmental ethics is not an external addition with which ecological sciences should be invested, as an applied tool for confronting environmental crisis. Ecologists construct their scientific theories influenced by particular ethical values. Ethicists value nature based on particular scientific theories. Thus, environmental ethics and ecological science are dialectically bonded in a dynamic unit. Under this unity, we can overcome the schizophrenic schism between objective knowledge and subjective morality, and recover the link between theory and practice, between knowing about nature and dwelling in the natural world.

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I specially thanks Baird Callicott for his valuable comments during my stay at the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies, University of North Texas, and Scott Lehmann at the Department of Philosophy, University of Connecticut, for his challenging criticisms of my thesis.


(1) Haeckel E (1866) Generelle Morphologie der Organismen: Allgemeine Grundzüge der organischen Formen-Wissenschaft, mechanisch begründet durch die von Charles Darwin reformirte Descendenz-Theorie. Georg Reimer, Berlin, Germany. The English translation of Haeckel’s paragraph defining ecology is taken from Alle et al. (1949) Principles of Animal Ecology. Saunders, Philadelphia. p. v.

(2) Leopold A (1949) A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, edition (1989), New York. p. 202.

(3) See Harrison J (1971) Erasmus Darwin’s view of Evolution. Journal of the History of Ideas 33: 247-264.

(4) Quote in Huxley J (1947) The Vindication of Darwinism. In Touchstone for Ethics (J Huxley ed.). Harper & Brother Publisher, New York. pp. 167-192.

(5) Darwin C (1859) The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. First Edition, London: Murray. Reedited by E Mayr, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts (1964). p. 5

(6) Ibid. p. 467

(7) Engels F (188 ) Dialectics of Nature. In Karl Marx, Frederick Engels. Collected Works. Volume 25. International Publishers, New York, (1987) p. 584.

(8) Darwin F ed. (1892) The Autobiography of Chrles Darwin and Selected Letters. Dover Publications Inc., New York. p. 28

(9) Ibid. p. 35

(10) See Callicott B (1989) In Defense of the Land Ethic. State University of New York. 325 pp.

(11) Diamond JM (1978) Niche shifts and the rediscovery of interspecific competition. American Scientist 66: 322-331.

(12) See Rozzi R (1997) Hacia una superación de la dicotomía antropocentrismo - biocentrismo. Ambiente y Desarrollo XIII (3): 80-89.

(13) Darwin C (1871) The Descent of Man. Princeton University Press, edition (1981). Princeton, New Jersey. p. 179

(14) Darwin, Origin of Species p. 74

(15) See Thompson JN (1997) Conserving interaction biodiversity. In The Ecological Basis of Conservation (Pickett et al. eds.). Chapman & Hall, New York.

(16) Darwin, Origin of Species p. 86

(17) See Rozzi R, E Hargrove, JJ Armesto, STA Pickett & J Silander (1998) "Natural drift" as a Post-Modern evolutionary metaphor. Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 71: 5-17.

(18) See, for example, Golley F (1987) Deep ecology from the perspective of environmental science. Environmental Ethics 9: 45-56. Smuts J (1926) Holism and Evolution. MacMillan, London. Phillips J (1931) "The biotic community." Journal of Ecology 19: 1-24.

(19) See Costanza et al. (1997) The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387: 253-260; and criticism in Rozzi R (1998) La filosofía ambiental de Baird Callicott: entre un multiculturalismo y una ética ecocéntrica universal. In Los Caminos de la Etica Ambiental (Kwiatkowska T & J Issa, eds.), pp. 79-84. Plaza y Valdés, Ciudad de México, México.

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