Conservation Status is Onto-Epistemic
By Branden Holmes
The IUCN RedList is one of the world's most cited conservation-orientated resources. But as powerful a tool as it is, it also, like almost anything, has its shortcomings. Often assessments are not updated in a timely matter, taxa are not (yet) assessed at all, and then taxa which were rediscovered years ago are sometimes still listed as 'Extinct'. But even if the RedList were perfect, even if all available information were compiled and used as the basis of all conservation assessments, it would still not be perfect. That is because conservation status is onto-epistemic, not ontic.
This website is an attempt to compile all available information on every single taxon that meets any two (or more) of a small number of criteria:
Necessarily must meet this criterion:
- Believed to have survived until the start of the Late Pleistocene (c.126ka)
Meets at least one of the following additional criteria:
- Believed to be extinct, probably extinct, or is "missing" (50% chance it is extinct, or greater)
- Believed to have been rediscovered, either globally or in the wild, after meeting the above criterion
- Currently believed to be extinct in the wild
- Formerly considered to be a valid taxon/breed/variety that meet at least one of the above criteria
Notice that every single criterion mentioned is actually predicated upon human beliefs and knowledge (i.e. epistemology), rather than actual ontic status. That is to say, the conservation status assessment of any given taxon is derived not from any automatically corrective correspondence with reality (to mention only one of many theories of truth). Rather it is from data gathered by the world's humans. Some or all of that data may be inaccurate, misleading or just plain wrong. We humans are subjective beings, the fallible genetic and experiential products of a truly digital world (i.e. the biological world, where DNA is essentially digital code) in which the inexorable increase of entropy (as a rule of thumb) in the wider physical universe has been temporarily reversed provincially1.
The Thylacine: A Case Study
At the start of the Holocene epoch 11.7ka, the thylacine is known to have existed in what is modern day New Guinea, mainland Australia, Tasmania as well as some other small Australian islands (i.e. Kangaroo Island, South Australia and Hunter Island, Tasmania). We know this because their palaeontological and recent remains have been found there. But just because we have not found their remains in other places does not mean that they were necessarily limited geographically only to these areas. Nor is there a guarantee that the youngest remains that we have for the species in each of these areas represents the very last individual/s inhabiting those areas.
In Tasmania in particular, since the species survived there so recently (until at least 7 September, 1936), and assuming that it is now sadly extinct there, the most recent Tasmanian remains are far more likely to be of some of the very last individuals than, say, those from New Guinea known from the mid-Holocene (c.5-5.5ka). Now of course, barring what would be the truly remarkable discovery of an entirely new population of living thylacines, I previously made the assumption, as part of my argument, that the thylacine is now extinct in Tasmania. Of course this is not necessarily the case.
The general scientific opinion is that the species is indeed wholly extinct throughout its former range. However, that statement is qualified for good reason. Not even the most ardent critic of claims of an extant population are claiming that it is impossible for the species to still exist. Rather, the thylacine almost certainly (or probably, or likely etc.) does not exist. There can be no reasonable doubt that the thylacine once existed, whatever its current fate. Thus it cannot be the case that thylacines cannot survive because it is impossible for them to do so on the basis that they are biologically impossible. Nor even that insufficient habitat remains for them. One trip to Tasmania (or just about anywhere in New Guinea, and indeed many places on the mainland of Australia) will quickly dispel that notion.
Therefore, when assessing the conservation status of the species, the aim is to try and model the most accurate representation of the species' actual ontic status in the wild and/or captivity. This involves things like the most recent record of the species, estimates of population sizes at various times, the methodological appropriateness of expeditions/surveys, etc. Notice that it is an implicit assumption in all of this that the species could still exist from a metaphysical point of view. What the compilation of available data and hermeneutical tools do for us is allow us to assign the species to one of any number of different conservation categories, depending upon what the final analysis turns out to be.
The Conservation Categories Themselves
The IUCN RedList utilises a range of conservation categories such as 'Vulnerable', 'Endangered' and 'Critically Endangered'. Most of these categories are what we might call onto-epistemic categories. They are a hybrid between ontology and epistemology. They represent our beliefs about the ontic status of the assessed taxon. That is, they attempt to say something about us but also something about external reality (in this case, reality beyond the conjunction of all humans2). They speak to our beliefs/knowledge of the assessed taxa. Of course there is one exception. The category 'Data Deficient'. This is a purely epistemic category, one that speaks to the paucity of data, and therefore our ignorance, and therefore our inability to confidently assign the taxon to any particular category that says something about the taxon itself and the health of its global population. It is a position of agnosticism.
When one speaks of the conservation status of a (sub)population, (sub)species etc. one can claim knowledge of a taxon's true ontic status. Or one can simply mean that given the balance of evidence, the most likely status of the wild/captive global population is this or that category. In general what is meant is the latter. After all, the former strays as much into philosophy as it does biology. The issue of whether true knowledge (i.e. cartesian certainty) is even metaphysically possible is highly contentious. One can of course retort that such a definition of knowledge is far too strict, and that the term is more often used to mean something epistemically much less strict. But then this kind of 'knowledge' starts look awfully like the evidential position espoused by the latter approach.
1 One of the definitions of 'provincial' is a '[general] lack of culture'. The provincial reversal of entropy (i.e. the origin and evolution of life) means that that lack of culture is no longer the case. Most people would consider bacteria as primordial life, and a culture (i.e. special kind of group) of bacteria being plural instead of the singular represents the increase of life. Bacterial culture, now routine research tools in medicine (which combines both epistemology and ontology (the subject of this article), the study of the process that created us. Like the illustration of the eye sat atop the left-hand column of the 'U' shape that is able to gaze back at the process that it is the end product of. Although I wouldn't wish to affirm any speciesistic notion that we are in any way superior to any other form of life, despite mainly religious claims to the contrary). An ultra punny element for those who desire it.
2 Technically, 'humans' covers any member of the genus Homo. But since we are the only extant taxon I am using the term as a synonym of Homo (sapiens) sapiens.
Published 5 August 2017.