What a weird title! In the context of the ecological crisis, a good approach would perhaps lead us to ask why biodiversity is so important… in itself? Why humanity would indeed need biodiversity is secondary to that second question and quite obvious: without biodiversity, human life is not possible on Earth, nor is any life at all . The loss of biodiversity is indeed catastrophic for the sake of humanity according to its immediate needs, but one would miss the point of an ecological ethics integrating the human dignity in its reflection. So, let us then consider why biodiversity is required for a genuine human life, but deeper we may understand the true nature of biodiversity to better protect it. Eventually we can go further and see why biodiversity corresponds to a spiritual need of humanity.
The issue of biodiversity as an ethical question centers around the meaning and value of the existence of diverse beings in the world. Usually human beings as shaped by occidental culture find this value in utility and economy following the Kantian distinction of person and thing . Only persons have the value of dignity. All other beings, have an instrumental value. The consideration of living beings as consumable things is at the heart of the historical causes of the ecological crisis, moreover of its biodiversity side. It is what is called by the philosopher and theologian Romano Guardini the instrumental reason .
So, asking the question: does humanity have a need for biodiversity is a two-edged problem, or a solution with an intrinsically problematic side. On the one side the solution is to absolutely answer “yes”. Because without biodiversity human future by means of food is put into jeopardy. Human food depends actually on a variety of vegetal and animal sources that differs according to geography. Deeper than this, one can also say that biodiversity is necessary for the good constitutions of soils, to achieve the right conditions for growing food. Biodiversity provides the molecules necessary for a good health or for curing diseases. If we widen the scope again, biodiversity is the very condition for life on earth and the control of the climatic equilibrium since billions of years, if we grant some accuracy to the Gaia hypothesis . So yes, if human beings want to have a future on earth, biodiversity protection should be considered as a priority.
The latest point is of importance because of what is implied. Human life depends on the life of other beings, as a member of a wider community of livings within the biosphere. Destroying the other members of this community is equivalent to committing suicide. There is an interdependence of the whole of the living on earth that configurate the survival of both members taken separately and community as a whole.
For human beings, living on a planet understood as a common home implies the understanding of the different parts of our home as members of the interdependent living community. The walls of the common house are constituted of the members of the community, and the human itself is understood as both a member, and a wall, or a roof, in the sense that it constitutes the living environment for numerous living beings. From here, there is a connection to establish with Hans Jonas’ ethical proposal: act in such a way that your action allows an authentic human life on earth . In this case, and in Jonas’ spirit, taking care of biodiversity is taking care of humanity and thus of human dignity.
The causes of the global biodiversity crisis and the opportunities to address them are tightly linked to the ways in which nature is valued in political and economic decisions at all levels. So, the integration of what follow is of uttermost importance. Though humanity begins to understand its intrinsic connections with the members of biodiversity, it seems insufficient to adopt a proper ecological ethics, because we keep the idea at the origin of the problem: utility and need. It should be a strong enough motivation to find that humanity is threatened by the loss of biodiversity. A concept has been created for that: ecosystem services . But if humanity wants to go a step further in ethical consideration, the issue of biodiversity should be better scrutinized if we begin to forget instrumental reason and reflect on the non-instrumental value of the diverse (living) beings populating our planet. This is a question of civilization concerning our relation to other beings. It requires a better understanding of what biodiversity is.
I am following here the contribution of French philosopher Virginie Marris, who identifies two fundamental dimensions or features of biodiversity .
On the one hand, biodiversity is the diversity of the living on earth at different levels of organization. It is not only the diversity of species that is concerned here, but rather the diversity of biological realities. It goes from the molecular level, as the genetic diversity for example, to the diversity of ecosystems. In between, one can find the diversity of cells, of tissues, of phenotypes among the organisms of a same population, diversity of population of the same species, diversity of species, and other taxonomic branches. Taking care of the present biodiversity implies all of these levels in ecological actions. This view of biodiversity stresses the state of diversity in the present time. It blinds the observer about the fact that life on earth has a story, and that the present state of biodiversity is the outcome of a very, very long process spread over millions and billions of years.
One the other hand, if we seriously receive the story of evolution of the living on earth, we must then consider that there are processes at work for the production of natural differences. Evolution of the living is the mechanism of production of biodiversity, or better, biodiversity is the process of production of natural living novelties through time as well as its outcome. Why is it important to understand biological life? It means at a deeper level that biodiversity is the answer to one very serious problem: finding the means of survival and resilience facing aggression. The propagation of life on earth depends on its resilient ability to diversity according to the different environmental constraints and aggressions. Indeed, if life were the reproduction of the same, then if there were an aggression responsible for the death of the organisms because of one set of weaknesses, it would be better to find means of adapting to the aggression showing a display of features, among which there should be some, able to resist the aggression. Diversification means adaptation and resilience of the living in an aggressive environment.
But production of natural novelties is a very time-consuming activity, and it depends on the mechanism of natural selection depicted by Darwin. It means that when the capacity of production of novelty is threatened by too big a pressure on the part of the environment, the very ability of life for resilience is threatened. And the issue of biodiversity is really about that problem. The rate of biodiversity loss, because of anthropic activity, is too important compared to its ability to regenerate and generate novelty to compensate. In this case taking care of biodiversity is caring for the ability of the living to produce diversity.
From here we can recognize that the inner finality of the living is producing diversity. But do we have a clue of how this production occurs? It is through the means of ecological relationships.
For Darwin, natural selection is based on the competition between individuals and between species themselves for the possession of the resource of food .Within a population comes also into play the competition for reproduction, too . Competition, feeding and breeding are at least three possible ecological relationships. And later ecologists found that those relationships were many and also more complex: predation, mutualism, symbiosis, pollination, are more of the examples of possible ecological relationships between living beings. Moreover, ecological relationships include interactions between living beings and inert (mineral) beings. Among these there are the relationships to soil, atmosphere and water. One may add light. The relationships form a web or network of interactions that shows a great deal of complexity. In its midst new features can arise that can be selected according to the environmental context.
If the surging of new being depends on strength and power of those relationships, one must then understand that such relationships are not accidental for the novelty thus created. It is even essential. I mean by this that without ecological relationships living beings could not exist at all. Novelty is what brings diversity among the livings. It is then clear that without ecological network of complex relationships there is no biodiversity. By way of an ethical conclusion of this small development, it is important to understand that protection of the ecological relationships within an ecosystem is the same as protecting or caring for biodiversity.
Each species, and even each individual in an ecosystem provides a set of inputs nourishing the web of ecological relationships. Those inputs are to be understood as contributions for the good working of the whole (eco-) system. Conversely, each entity composing the ecosystem is dependent on the health of the complex network of ecological relationship at work in the concerned habitat. It is a principle at the heart of the land ethics of Aldo Leopold that ethical value is given to such a community of interacting beings, and to each being contributing to the good of the whole system. This is good in itself, not according to human needs, except on a derived perspective, because without those, no human life is possible. But the ecological contributions of each being are good in themselves too because they fulfill the inner end of biodiversity: the durability of biological life on earth. And believe it or not, from a christian perspective it has strong theological values.
Ecotheology, in partnership with ecophilosophy is involved in the critic of the anthropocentric ethics that led humanity into the ecological crisis . See as an example the major contribution of Pope Francis in his encyclical letter: Laudato si’, on care for our common home .
In its third chapter Francis criticizes strongly the instrumental reason that led to consider only instrumental value of non-human beings. In response to that ethical paradigm he proposes the principle of “own” (LS 76) and “intrinsic” (LS 115.118) value of creatures by creation, independently of whatever human use. The value of creatures is rooted in a strong theological claim: creation is good in the eyes of God and it is what is proclaimed in Gen 1, at each day of the creation narrative. Here theology is consistent with ecological thoughts and even more so provides for its own set of arguments to strengthen the critic of instrumental reason, and the claim of a non-instrumental value of natural entities. So, one can say that humanity needs to recognize this intrinsic value of creatures to understand why it is important to respect biodiversity in itself for the care of creation.
This being said, more convergent argumentations can be made on the link between ecological relationships, biodiversity, and theology.
Biodiversity as a process speaks of an inner creativity of nature. New natural entities come to existence to and through the complex set of ecological relationships. It is quite puzzling to wonder about the source of this novelty. Would novelty in nature be the signal of a divine creative act within time? It is seemingly possible to consider that there is a complex relationship between God and creation whereby the means for God to create is to use the abilities of natural entities to generate new beings. The creative act is to be considered as a kind of dialog between Creator and creature. The dialog consists then in a permanent proposal of novelties by God, and a permanent sorting of the novelties by creatures according to the status of evolving process, and the perimeter of the universe of possibilities that it sets and delimits.
From this perspective, biodiversity becomes of an utmost theological value because it can be interpreted as the prominent signal that God is still involved in a permanent action of creation of new creatures in the world. It is what theologians call continuous creation .It finds again a voice in the papal text of Laudato si’ in its 80th paragraph:
God is intimately present to each being, without impinging on the autonomy of his creature, and this gives rise to the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs. His divine presence, which ensures the subsistence and growth of each being, “continues the work of creation ". The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship ".
It is implied here that the process of continuous creation manifests the closeness of presence of God within creation according to the idea that it is a special work done by the Holy Spirit, which is correlatively considered as a “giver (‘maker’ in Greek) of life” by the Nicene creed. And from the point of view of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the spiritual energy is at work within creation by bringing things together . Even for Teilhard, creation means putting things in relationship.
On an ethical level, humanity does not need biodiversity, but needs to be associated to the process of producing diversity in nature because it can become partner of continuous creation. Otherwise, by breaking the links between beings in an ecosystem and by sharing in the biodiversity loss, it becomes an adversary of continuous creation, hence a sinner opposed to God’s creative plan.
But biodiversity has yet another meaning that makes the synthesis of both previous argumentations. Biodiversity has and is a theological and spiritual message all by itself.
As an outcome of continuous creation, biodiversity fulfils a great goal and end of creation: the manifestation of God’s glory within creation. Again, Christian theology has not claimed anything else in its history from the Bible (Ps 18, 1-) to present day, going through the inputs of Church-Fathers, medieval thinkers, Reformers and modern natural theologians. But again, one of the most recent contribution on this topic is to be found in Laudato si’ (quoting a medieval theologian by the way):
The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God. Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that multiplicity and variety “come from the intention of the first agent” who willed that “what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another , inasmuch as God’s goodness “could not be represented fittingly by any one creature ". Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships. We understand better the importance and meaning of each creature if we contemplate it within the entirety of God’s plan (LS 86).
Biodiversity is one of the main aspects of the manifestation not only of God’s glory, but also his knowledge, goodness (in the generosity of the different forms of being), perfection, and benevolence. So, yes, human needs biodiversity because it can help us to provide the right worship that God deserves. Sharing in the loss of biodiversity is a human contribution to the diminishing of the divine manifestations within creation, and can again be considered as a sin.
Indeed, if humanity wants to survive in the long run it will have to take good care of biodiversity. Humanity needs biodiversity. But it would be a poor approach to this issue to make this the end of it. The main and efficient ethical means is the recognition that biodiversity exists in itself, not only because humanity has eventual needs of it. Ecological philosophy can help humans find our intrinsic relatedness and interdependence from ecological networks composed of the biodiversity elements. Theology can help in doing so through the idea that biodiversity shows forth a great deal of God’s goodness. Deeper, humanity needs to share in the process of production of biodiversity so that it can fulfil its mission of being a good warden and steward of creation, through the means of participation of continuous creation, and doing so, helping creation to fulfil its end, i.e. the manifestation of God’s glory in creation. Eventually, humans need biodiversity because it helps them to glorify God who shows something of himself thanks to the very diversity of creatures.
Published April 2023
Fabien Revol is doctor of theology, doctor of philosophy and has a master's degree in biology of populations and ecosystems. He is a professor of moral theology of ecology at the Catholic University of Lyon. He is a member of the interdisciplinary research pole “Integral Development, Ecology and Ethics” of the Research Department of his University. He published two articles in Zygon on “Continuous creation” in 2020, and one in Theology and Sciences in 2021, in his domain of expertise.
This article is also available in German translation.
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Biodiversity collage : Adobe Stock # 44069811 © Yü Lan
Shelter for insects made with natural materials in the city park: Adobe Stock # 320541985 © diesirae
Biodiversity conservation - wildflower borders along farm fields to support pollinators and other wildlife (Jutland, Denmark) : Adobe Stock # 373901968 © Ines Porada