Subject 1: Theoretical foundations of nature conservation and species protection in Central Europe – the importance of open landscapes

After hundreds of years of flourishing in Central Europe’s fields, meadows and pastures, species richness of agricultural territories has now all but disappeared – and it will never again achieve its erstwhile abundance. Organic farming is not the answer, however, since the main reasons for the loss of biodiversity on agricultural territories are the over-fertilisation of the soil and the exploitation of agricultural land down to the last square yard. Almost all the species of the agricultural landscape are now classed as endangered on the Red Lists. Today, unfertilized areas with minimal tree and scrub growth and with sparse, patchy ground vegetation are almost exclusively found on military areas, in large gravel mining areas, on the land where open-cast mining excavations were carried out, beside airport runways and, on a smaller scale, on major road embankments and disused railway tracks. These areas have consequently become refuges for many species on the Red Lists. Field biologists have been aware of this for a long time and usually visit these areas (not preferentially the nature reserves) if they want to see rare species of birds and insects.

The official nature conservation associations are not sufficiently committed to the artificial creation of open land habitats by technical engineering. Instead, the demands for a nature that is as pristine as possible still remain far too much in the foreground. One reason for this was the integration of species protection into environmental protection in the 1980s; but the great successes achieved by environmental protection in recent decades have saved very few of the endangered Red List species. In Germany, politicians and the various nature conservation associations see nature conservation in the first instance as technical environmental protection, so species protection often falls by the wayside. However, organic tomatoes will not bring back the Corn Bunting and the Wryneck will not return because of the effectively-advertised apple juice of protected grassland orchards.

The politicians praise their alleged successes in nature conservation, like the much-publicised bans on the picking of flowers, the collecting of insects and on access to protected areas.  Enforcing prohibitions like this, however, is akin to fighting on the wrong front, because while such laws are being passed and adhered to, the loss of species is continuing almost unhindered. Central Europe is not Indonesia or Brazil, where species protection depends on the conservation of almost pristine habitats. There has been no original, pristine nature in Central Europe for thousands of years now, so whether or not it should be a desirable objective is highly questionable. If the ongoing decline in biodiversity is to be stopped in Central Europe, the fight must be taken up against afforestation and a positive mood must be created in the population regarding the protection of species by engineering habitats with technical machines instead of preserving pristine nature.


Subject 2: Theoretical foundations of the concept of species

A solidly-founded concept of species is essential to facilitate international communication in the fields of biological science, nature conservation and species protection. Even today, there is no generally accepted concept of what species actually are. This is why contradictions and disputes are inevitable. One major reason for this lack of unanimity is that any attempt to theoretically define the species in a consistent, contradiction-free way is incompatible with the need for practical application in day-to-day taxonomy. There is therefore no other option than to regard the concept of species used in practice as an artificial artefact that addresses many natural similarities and differences between organisms, but at the same time is itself a group formation which does not exist as a group in nature. This conclusion is not popular with many taxonomists.

In the most general sense, a species is a group of organisms held together by criteria, and since examples of connection like this exist objectively in nature, species exist in nature. So species are not only classification principles created by the human mind. The problem is, however, that the mechanisms which bind organisms together differ. Organisms can be reproductively held together by gene replacement and recombination of the genomes, but they can also form a unit through common ancestry. As a result, there are various cohesive units in nature, and they are all described by the common term “species”. Ontologically, however, descent communities and reproductive communities are two different entities; they do not meet the criterion of ”sameness”. There are organisms that are closely related to one other, but they are nevertheless reproductively isolated, and there are strong genetic differences between populations all of which are nevertheless connected to one other reproductively. What this means is that there is no such thing in nature as THE species. The confusion here is caused by the fact that the word “species”, as a homonymous term, has been superimposed on to different units that exist in nature at the same time. The fundamental flaw in Ernst Mayr’s line of thought was that he selected one unit from the various units that exist in nature (the reproductive community) and declared that this one unit was the generally valid concept of species.

Taxonomy is a practice-oriented science and it must find a way to somehow or other harmonise the various units that exist in nature. This cannot succeed consistently. Modern “integrative taxonomy” is going down a promising road here. Of all the concepts that have hitherto been used for species, it comes closest to addressing the variety of different relationships with which the organisms are linked to one another and to their environment. Integrative taxonomy will not displace the current boom of “barcode taxonomy”, but it will prevail alongside it as a second taxonomy.

Responsible for the content: E-MailProf. Dr. Werner Kunz