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Do We Really Need Pandas? The impact of human intervention on natural selection

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Nigel Bennee.

What has biodiversity ever done for us?

How much do we really know about the species that make up the natural world and how they interrelate? In particular, how many species are there, and what (if anything) are they worth in purely economic terms?

There is a lot more biodiversity than most of us realise, most of it unknown and undescribed. We are losing species at an alarming rate, so how worried should we be?

I would argue that biodiversity loss should primarily be seen not as a problem in itself, but as a symptom of a deeper crisis; and, as any doctor will tell you, treating the symptoms rather than the underlying disease rarely leads to a lasting cure. We need to look at ecosystems rather than biodiversity per se.

If we lose iconic species – such as the giant panda, the Yangtze dolphin or the mountain gorilla – we are all the poorer, but not in any measurable material sense – for their loss would not lead to irreparable damage to ecosystems.

Our modern, highly fertile landscape created by intensive farming delivers cheap food, but unfortunately that’s all it delivers. If we can devise multifunctional landscapes that also deliver better water quality, less soil erosion and more carbon storage, then plants, moths, butterflies, bumblebees and birds will all gain too, but these biodiversity benefits will only be welcome side-effects of fixing the fundamental controls on ecosystem functioning.

Assuming that if only we can fix the biodiversity crisis, all will be well with the world, is (literally, in many cases) to fail to see the wood for the trees.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Society for the Application of Research (CSAR) series.

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