Value of species and the evolution of conservation ethics.

Research paper by Darragh D Hare, Bernd B Blossey, H Kern HK Reeve

Indexed on: 20 Dec '18Published on: 20 Dec '18Published in: Royal Society open science


The theory of evolution by natural selection can help explain why people care about other species. Building upon recent insights that morality evolves to secure fitness advantages of cooperation, we propose that conservation ethics (moral beliefs, attitudes, intuitions and norms regarding other species) could be adaptations that support cooperation between humans and non-humans. We present eco-evolutionary cost-benefit models of conservation behaviours as interspecific cooperation (altruism towards members of other species). We find that an evolutionary rule identical in structure to Hamilton's rule (which explains altruistic behaviour towards related conspecifics) can explain altruistic behaviour towards members of other species. Natural selection will favour traits for selectively altering the success of members of other species (e.g. conserving them) in ways that maximize inclusive fitness return benefits. Conservation behaviours and the ethics that evolve to reinforce them will be sensitive to local ecological and socio-cultural conditions, so will assume different contours in different places. Difficulties accurately assessing costs and benefits provided by other species, time required to adapt to ecological and socio-cultural change and barriers to collective action could explain the apparent contradiction between the widespread existence of conservation ethics and patterns of biodiversity decline globally.