24 Mar 2017 - 25 Mar 2017 All day Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT


Registration for the conference is now closed. 



Deborah Coen (Barnard College, Columbia University)

Helen Anne Curry (University of Cambridge)

Paul White (University of Cambridge)



Formed at the intersection of biology, politics, and law, the concept of biodiversity has become one of the most crucial and complex terms in the environmental sciences, and operates as both fact and value in public debates about the preservation of species and habitats from human influence, exploitation, and destruction. Although the origins of the concept are well known, its relationship to other traditions and discourses is less well charted.

This conference will bring together scholars and researchers in ecology, politics, geography, anthropology, cultural history, and history and philosophy of science to explore how aesthetic, economic, and moral value came to be attached to the diversity of life on earth. We will draw on a rich body of research on hybridity and exchange, habitat and distribution, civilization and extinction from the eighteenth century onwards, bringing renewed attention to a powerful contemporary concept whose historical and disciplinary breadth has yet to be critically examined. This is especially important at a moment when political debates threaten to eliminate the rich valences and values attached to biological diversity by substituting instrumental calculations and impoverished notions such as ‘ecosystem services’. 


  • Uradyn Bulag (University of Cambridge)
  • Deborah Coen (Barnard College, Columbia University)
  • Helen Anne Curry (University of Cambridge)
  • Sabine Höhler (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden)
  • Jasper Montana (University of Cambridge)
  • Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Exeter)
  • Chris Sandbrook (University of Cambridge)
  • Anne Secord (University of Cambridge)
  • Jim Secord (University of Cambridge)
  • David Sepkoski (MPI for the History of Science, Berlin)
  • Sujit Sivasundaram (University of Cambridge)
  • Alistair Sponsel (Vanderbilt University)
  • Anna Svennson (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden)
  • Georg Toepfer (Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Berlin)
  • Alice Vadrot (University of Cambridge)
  • Emily Wakild (Boise State University)
  • Emily Wanderer (University of Pittsburgh)
  • Paul White (University of Cambridge)




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), and the Darwin Correspondence Project.


Administrative assistance: events@crassh.cam.ac.uk


We are unable to arrange or book accommodation for registrants; however, the following websites may be of help:

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage


Day 1 - Friday 24 March
10.30 - 11.00


11.00 - 11.15

Welcome and Introduction

Deborah Coen (Barnard College, Columbia University), Helen Anne Curry (University of Cambridge), Paul White (University of Cambridge)

11.15 - 13.00

Session 1: Experience and Representation

Chair: Paul White (University of Cambridge)


Anne Secord (University of Cambridge)

Gilbert White’s interconnected world


Anna Svennson and Sabine Höhler (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden)

Infinite variety circumscribed: a dialogue between John Ray’s Wisdom of God and John Allen’s Biosphere 2


Georg Toepfer (Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Berlin)

Unequivocal ethical concern in pluralistic guise

13.00 - 14.00


14.00 - 15.45

Session 2: Measurement and Management

Chair: Deborah Coen (Barnard College, Columbia University)


Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Exeter)

Art and nature in the history of natural history


Alice Vadrot (University of Cambridge)

Remote-sensing and in-situ observations for biodiversity conservation and science


Chris Sandbrook (University of Cambridge)

50 shades of green: the multiple meanings of biodiversity within the conservation movement

15.45 - 16.15


16.15 - 18.00

Session 3: Values of Diversity

Chair: Helen Anne Curry (University of Cambridge)


Emily Wakild (Boise State University)

Biodiversity as justification: conservation in South America in the twentieth century


Jasper Montana (University of Cambridge)

Constitutional divisions in the democratisation of knowledge


David Sepkoski (MPI for the History of Science, Berlin)

Extinction and the value of diversity

18.00 - 19.00

Drinks reception

Day 2 - Saturday 25 March
9.30 - 11.15

Session 4: Biogeography and Evolution

Chair: Jim Secord (University of Cambridge)


Paul White (University of Cambridge)

Darwin’s divergence


Alistair Sponsel (Vanderbilt University)

Darwin's use of biodiversity as an indicator of geographical change


Deborah Coen (Barnard College, Columbia University)

Where the Alps meet the Steppe: interpreting botanical diversity in a multinational empire

11.15 - 11.45


11.45 - 13.30

Session 5: Biocultural Diversity

Chair: Sujit Sivasundaram (University of Cambridge)


Uradyn Bulag (University of Cambridge)

Chinese models of multi-culturalism/multi-nationalism and their histories


Emily Wanderer (University of Pittsburgh)

Vivir Mejor and the biodiverse nation


Helen Anne Curry (University of Cambridge)

Garden variety diversity: heirloom seed saving in Britain and the United States​

13.30 - 14.30


14.30 - 16.15

Closing Discussion

Brief comments by Jim Secord, Sujit Sivasundaram, Deborah Coen, Helen Anne Curry, and Paul White, followed by open discussion

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