Integrating the History and Philosophy of Biodiversity

Narratives of Diversity, Extinction, Conflict and Value

Museum of Natural Sciences, Brussels, October 20–21*, 2023

‘Biodiversity’ is something of a paradox: a contested concept philosophically, historically, and scientifically, yet one almost universally considered to be a precious natural resource worth protecting. As a shorthand for biological diversity, the concept has been part of crucial changes in the history of the life sciences, where theoretical developments have been entangled with cultural anxieties about extinction and degradation. The quantification of biodiversity is based upon complex data infrastructures where lack of interoperability poses serious obstacles for local and global conservation governance. Philosophers have found in its empirical indeterminacy a possibility to introduce discussions of value and ethics in science. From the preservation of wildlife to the making of national parks to the emergence of conservation as a science, nature conservation is by no means an innocent project with only positive outcomes. The history of conservation is also a history of conflict for access to territory and resources. Land conflicts are at the heart of conservation and biodiversity, as indigenous people still face expropriation and eviction. Critics of the western model of conservation have voiced the need for a more plural representation of nature’s stakeholders in conservation decision-making, and this seems to be reflected in the most recent UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15, December 2022), which shows, together with the 30 x 30 conservation pledge, a wish to recognise the “the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.”

A photograph of a rainforest, a taxonomic puzzle, a conservation metric evading consensus, a flagship for colonial domination, a possibility for value in science, a situated sensibility towards endangered wildlife, or simply, a powerful buzzword. With its many lives, researchers in the history and philosophy of science, as well as in neighbouring fields, will likely agree that ‘biodiversity’ is not an unmediated representation of nature. As with its densely value-laden cousin of ‘variety,’ biodiversity has come to pervade our discourse about the protection of nature, finding itself not only in conservation hotspots in the tropical rainforests, but also in frozen seed banks, in temperate forests, in governmental agencies, in university departments, and in activist fanzines.


This conference aims to bring together scholars from several traditions – at the very least, from philosophy of science, history of science, and environmental history – to propose different ways to think about ‘biodiversity’ and explore how they might interact. The scope of the conference includes topics in but is not restricted to:

  • empirical underdetermination of biodiversity
  • the role of values in conservation science
  • the challenges of taxonomic classification
  • issues in conservation governance
  • histories of conservation science and ecology
  • historiography of the history of conservation science and ecology
  • environmentalism and conservationism
  • histories of environmental conflicts
  • grassroots environmental initiatives
  • environmental justice
  • historiography of environmental history
  • beyond the tropics: temperate biodiversity
  • forms of diversity: soil diversity, genetic diversity, phylodiversity
  • conflicts of expertise
  • colonial roots of conservation
  • extinction and future imaginaries
  • landscape and identity

Keynote Speakers

We are thrilled to confirm the participation of the following two keynote speakers:

David Sepkoski

Thomas M. Siebel Chair in History of Science, University of Illinois

Prof. Sepkoski specializes in transnational history of biological, environmental, and information sciences in cultural context. His most recent book is Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity (University of Chicago Press, 2020), a book whose approach has in part inspired our approach to this conference. He is also the author of Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline (Chicago, 2012) and Nominalism and Constructivism in Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy (Routledge, 2007).

Alkistis Elliott-Graves

Junior-Professor, Philosophy, Bielefeld University

Prof. Elliott-Graves’ research has largely centered around complex systems: what makes them interesting but also difficult to investigate. Her recent work has focused on the difficulty of making precise and accurate predictions in ecology and climate science, and what this means for the scientific status of these disciplines. She has also explored questions of the relationship between traditional philosophy of science and applied scientific practice.


Museum of Natural Sciences, Brussels

Our conference will take place in the Museum of Natural Sciences, Brussels, a working museum that forms part of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. Talks will be held in a room just to the side of the first ever complete dinosaur fossils ever excavated, the famous Bernissart Iguanodons. The conference dinner will also take place at the museum on Friday night, on the balcony overlooking the dinosaur gallery.

Conference Organizers

Practical Information

The conference will take place over two days, October 20 and 21*, 2023.

The Museum of Natural Sciences is extremely centrally located in Brussels, Belgium, which is served by air via Brussels Airport (BRU) as well as fast rail connections from London (Eurostar), Paris (Thalys and TGV), Amsterdam (Thalys, Eurostar, and NS), and Aachen/Köln (DB ICE). The train station of Bruxelles-Luxembourg is a 450m walk, and the historic city center of Brussels is around 2km away. See also the museum’s page on site access for further directions. (Information on lodging opportunities will be provided soon.)

At the moment, given the public health situation in Belgium, we anticipate having a fully in-person meeting, though we will make changes to this policy as needed (and would also be happy to consider exceptions to this policy).

* For those who are able to stay for the morning of October 22, we have planned an excursion to a local museum – likely to the biodiversity collections at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, just outside Brussels. More details are forthcoming, but if you are able to stick around as you plan your travel, please consider it!

At the moment, we do not anticipate needing to charge participants a registration fee. The conference is financed by the Fonds National de la Recherche — FNRS.

Event Date (all in 2023)
Submissions open January 16
Submissions close April 1
Decision May 1
Registration opens June 10
Registration closes mid-September
Conference October 20–21


We would happily welcome any submissions that engage with the history and/or philosophy of biodiversity, within the (intentionally broad) disciplinary scope mentioned above.

Please fill in the submission form with your abstract of no more than 500 words by April 1st, 2023, 23h59 Brussels time.

Conference Goals

The organizers are interested in the possibility, pending the availability and interest of the participants, of publishing an edited volume containing the peer-reviewed versions of presentations as chapters.


We want to do our best to accommodate the needs of parent researchers. Together with making the conference a welcoming space for babies and toddlers, we are in contact with several local caregiving and babysitting providers. If you are a parent and are thinking of sending a contribution, please contact us as soon as possible. We will arrange these services depending on need.

Sponsors and Partners

Thanks to the following organizations:

Fonds de la recherchescientifique (FNRS, Wallonie, Belgique) Museum of Natural Sciences, Brussels