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The world of the conservation biologist is nothing if not challenging. Continually limited funding, a depressing litany of habitat and species losses, a burgeoning human population that does not seem to grasp the relevance or depth of our problems, and a complex natural world with few easy and clear answers are just a few of the challenges that we face daily. Despite that, we continue on, confident in the knowledge that we are doing the right thing and hopeful that the global situation will improve with our help. We have little choice but to forge ahead if we truly believe that what we are doing is correct and necessary, so we persevere against evermounting odds.
Most biologists are familiar with terms such as ‘hybrid vigour’ and ‘cross fertilization’, and we generally understand the significance of among-population gene flow and inbreeding avoidance. Even the layman has a vague understanding of these concepts, and speaks of ‘bringing in new blood’ to a domestic population that may be in decline. Outbreeding, provided it is not too extreme, is often beneficial to a population and can rejuvenate a ‘tired’ gene pool and reverse the ills of inbreeding depression; it can introduce new characteristics and increase vigour. These genetic concepts can, I think, also be useful when applied to entire fields of study. We in the conservation community could benefit from the experience, perspectives and world views of others, and perhaps avoid reinventing the wheel as we venture into new territories. I believe some cross-fertilization with other fields could enhance our conservation efforts.
Conservation science is born of an inherent conflict. On one hand it is based in science, an objective, value-free search for truth that leads to general laws, with no a priori desire for particular outcomes. On the other hand it is clearly driven by value–laden goals related to making the human–nature relationship an enduring one. In contrast to an objective science, particular outcomes – such as preservation of biodiversity and protection or restoration of functioning ecosystems – are clearly pursued in conservation. The result is a sometimes uncomfortable merging of two human endeavours – one objective and one value-laden – that are inherently antagonistic and can result in tension. To make this tension creative, rather than destructive, we need to understand how both components are necessary and synergistic in forming a complete conservation science.