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The Ethics of Conservation Biotechnology: A Conceptual Engineering Approach

Photo credit to RE Johnson

This Project is Supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities through the Dangers and Opportunities of Technology: Perspectives from the Humanities Program.

Conservation biotechnologies, such as gene editing, synthetic biology and gene drives, are world remaking technologies. They have the power to engineer fundamental aspects of species and ecological systems to realize human visions for the nonhuman world. As such, these technologies need ethical direction; without it, there is a danger that they will be used to design the biological world to suit the particular priorities and desires of those who control them. Unfortunately, the concepts and categories that typically have been used to evaluate conservation strategies – e.g. integrity, stability, native, wild, and natural – are themselves failing, overwhelmed by the realities of rapid anthropogenic change and ethical claims associated with wild animal welfare and environmental justice, including land stewardship of Indigenous peoples. This collaborative team project will convene a team of scholars from conservation philosophy, animal ethics, and Indigenous philosophy to address core conceptual issues at their intersection, in order to enable robust and inclusive ethical evaluation of conservation biotechnologies.

Project Researchers

Bernice Bovenkerk is an Associate Professor in animal and environmental ethics at Wageningen University, the Netherlands. She is currently working on a Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research Innovative Research Grant titled ‘Anthropocene Ethics: Taking animal agency seriously’. This project includes research on the ethics of gene drives, de-extinction, and wild animal agency. Her past work includes projects and resulting publications on the ethics of animal biotechnology and the ethics of sheltering animals from the wild. Her other research interests include the ethics of dealing with invasive species, the moral status of animals (especially fish), climate ethics, and deliberative democracy. She has co-edited two Springer books, Animals in Our Midst: The Challenges of Coexisting with Animals in the Anthropocene (2021) and Animal Ethics in the Age of Humans: Blurring boundaries in human-animal Relationships (2016). She is also the author of the Springer book The Biotechnology Debate: Democracy in the face of Intractable Disagreement (2012) and has continuing interests in the role of both inclusion and consensus in democratic deliberation about biotechnology.

Irus Braverman is a Professor of Law and adjunct Professor of Geography at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her work lies at the intersection of nature and governance, and she teaches courses on the politics of nature, law and genetics, wildlife and biodiversity, and climate justice, among others. Braverman is the author of several monographs, including Planted Flags: Trees, Land, and Law in Israel/Palestine (2009), Zooland: The Institution of Captivity (2012), and Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink (2018). Her latest monograph, Settling Nature: The Conservation Regime in Palestine-Israel, is forthcoming in 2023 with the University of Minnesota Press. She is also editor of several collections, including Gene Editing, Law, and the Environment: Life Beyond the Human (2017) and More-than-One Health: Humans, Animals, and the Environment Post-COVID (2022). Braverman also serves on multiple boards, including on the ELSI committee of the Earth BioGenome Project, an initiative that aims to sequence and catalog the genomes of all of Earth’s currently described eukaryotic species over a period of ten years.

Heather Browning is a Lecturer (equivalent Assistant Professor) in Philosophy at the University of Southampton, UK specializing in animal sentience and welfare. She has written numerous papers addressing questions in animal welfare science and animal ethics, including the problem of wild animal suffering. She previously worked as a researcher in animal sentience and welfare at the London School of Economics, as part of the Foundations of Animal Sentience project, and was part of the research team who produced a report for the UK government reviewing the evidence for sentience in cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans, leading to an amendment of the UK’s Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act to include their protection. Alongside her academic career, she has worked for many years as a zookeeper and animal welfare officer, familiar with the practical aspects of animal husbandry and welfare assessment.

Brian Burkhart is the Director of the Native Nations Center and an Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. He holds a PhD from the University of Indiana. Dr. Burkhart is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. His areas of research are decolonial environmental/climate ethics and justice, as well as Indigenous science and philosophies of science, and Indigenous social and political philosophies, particularly Indigenous governance and well-being. He published Indigenous Philosophy from the Land: A Trickster Methodology for Decolonizing Environmental Ethics and Indigenous Futures, with Michigan State University Press in 2019, has a book forthcoming, Critical Indigenous Philosophies, and is completing another, As Strong as the Land that Made You: Indigenizing Governance and Well-being through the Land.

Alejandro Camacho is Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources at the University of California – Irvine School of Law.  His work explores the goals, structures, and processes of regulation, with a particular focus on natural resources and public lands law, pollution control law, and land use regulation. His writing generally considers the role of public participation and scientific expertise in regulation, the allocation of authority and relationships between regulatory institutions, and how the design and goals of legal institutions must and can be reshaped to more effectively account for emerging technologies and the dynamic character of natural and human systems. His interdisciplinary research has involved collaborations with experts in ecology, land use planning, political science, computer science, genetics, philosophy, and sociology. He was a co-investigator on National Science Foundation-funded research developing a collaborative cyber-infrastructure for facilitating climate change adaptation. His scientific publications include articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, BioScience, the Journal of Applied Ecology, Frontiers in Climate, and Issues in Science and Technology. He has also published extensively in law journals and is co-author of Reorganizing Government: A Functional and Dimensional Framework (NYU Press, 2019).

Workineh Kelbessa is a Professor of Philosophy at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. His work focuses on environmental philosophy, indigenous knowledge, African philosophy, comparative philosophy, development ethics, climate ethics, water ethics, globalization, and philosophy of love and sex. His most recent publications are: “African Environmental Philosophy, Injustice, and Policy” (2022), “Environmental Injustice and Disposal of Hazardous Waste in Africa” (2022), “Africa’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Guiding Ethical Principles” (2022), and “Philosophical Responses to Global Challenges with African Examples” (edited with Tenna Dewo, The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2022). He served as a member of UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) from 2012-2019. He was also a member of the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP) and a Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is currently a member of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences and serves as a member of several other international professional associations.

Christopher J. Preston is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montana in Missoula. His work centers on wildlife, technology, and the Anthropocene. He is author of more than forty articles and book chapters and has written four books in environmental philosophy and emerging technology. His award-winning 2018 book, The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World, has been translated into six languages. The book discusses how the natural world is progressively being remade from the atom to the atmosphere by emerging technologies. His new book, Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think About Animals (2023) details a number of species that have recovered robustly in the wild over the last several decades. In addition to his scholarly work and journal articles, he has written for The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, Discover, The Conversation, Aeon,, and The BBC. He also gives talks in state parks, libraries, and breweries across Montana to campers and other audiences interested in conservation and technology.

Yasha Rohwer is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Oregon Institute of Technology. He specializes in environmental ethics, philosophy of technology, and philosophy of science. He primarily focuses on the moral permissibility of genetic interventions for conservation purposes and the foundational values of conservation biology. He has published extensively about conservation values and biotechnologies in both academic philosophy journals (e.g. Environmental Ethics, Environmental Values, Ethics, Policy & Environment) and in conservation and ecology journals (e.g. Conservation Biology, Restoration Ecology, Conservation Science and Practice). He has been invited to speak at a conference on genetic interventions in ecology co-hosted by the biotechnology firm Revive & Restore and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison and at a conference at the Gene Drive Working Group at The Institute for Practical Ethics at the University of California, San Diego. Many of his works are the fruits of interdisciplinary collaborations. He has worked with biologists, engineers, an economist, an environmental writer, policy experts, and of course other philosophers.

Anna Wienhues is an Assistant Professor in Environmental Philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy at KU Leuven, Belgium. Previously she was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oslo and the University of Zurich; and she holds a PhD from the University of Manchester. Her work focuses on two interrelated research fields. The first constitutes environmental ethics with an emphasis on different themes within conservation philosophy, such as moral reasons to protect nonhuman individuals, species and biodiversity in the context of environmental change – the era that has been termed the ‘Anthropocene’. The second field constitutes green political theory with a focus on questions of ecological (i.e., interspecies) and environmental justice and what this implies for sustainability and just conservation. She is the author of Ecological Justice and the Extinction Crisis: Giving Living Beings their Due (Bristol University Press 2020).

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