Unveiling, assessing and taking advantage of the aesthetic dimension in conservation practices: butterflies as a case study, between new theoretical insights and practical applications
Is beauty what is beautiful or is beauty what is liked? Which animals do we find most attractive from an aesthetic point of view and what role does beauty play in our decision to protect and preserve certain endangered species rather than other ones? Does the fact that a particular animal form looks to us beautiful or ugly, disgusting or pretty, act as a driving force or deterrent in our decision to care for it and implement conservation strategies?
The "Unveiling" project, funded by the University of Florence and led by researchers from the Departments of Humanities (DILEF) and Biology (BIO), seeks to study the role and the relevance of the aesthetic dimension in the design and effective implementation of conservation strategies for endangered fauna, with particular regard to European butterfly species.
The starting point for our research with "Unveiling" was some preliminary data concerning the red lists (lists of endangered or threatened species) for butterflies in Italy and Europe. Apparently, at equal levels of endangerment, the largest, most colourful, most striking and liveliest butterflies were the ones most frequently included on these lists. In a nutshell, the most beautiful ones! It seems, therefore, that there is a sort of “aesthetic bias” at play here: but how to quantify its effect? What is its real impact on the dynamics of protection and conservation? Are we more prone and motivated to preserve what we experience as beautiful? And, if it is true that even less eye-catching or aesthetically relevant species must be covered by protection plans, if endangered, then how can we act to re-modulate the aesthetic bias?
Our aim with "Unveiling", however, does not simply end with the recognition and quantification of the bias, as if beauty and the aesthetic experience of the beautiful were "subjective" and irrational inclinations from which the researcher or the visitor of nature parks must abstract, in order to keep an objective eye on the real need for protection.
Rather, "Unveiling" seeks to show all the motivating, driving and social bonding potential of the aesthetic experience, a real "device" that cannot be neglected by conservation strategies if they aim at ensuring real effectiveness. While proceeding from beauty (which is, in any case, only one of the possible aesthetic categories), our project, thus, aims to develop an analysis of the aesthetic experience in general (beautiful, ugly, graceful, sublime, wonderful, etc.) and of its role in preserving biodiversity. A genuine "aesthetics of biological conservation"!
To this extent, "Unveiling" follows two research paths:
1) the evaluation of aesthetic appreciation (in the sum of its components: perceptive, emotional, cognitive, imaginative) by means of the online test that is an integral part of this website.
2) the aesthetic analysis of the photo-reports of European butterflies uploaded on the popular citizen-science website "iNaturalist". This way, "Unveiling" will use the input of ordinary citizens (more or less advanced) to carry out the research and will construct an actual shared aesthetic "archive".
We expect a high impact from the project: having identified and quantified the aesthetic bias and, more generally, analyzed and discussed the role of aesthetic experience as a motivating and modulating element of the naturalistic experience, it will be possible to develop new and more effective theoretical and applicative tools for the strategies of protection and biological conservation of nature parks, research centres, institutions of scientific museology, naturalistic oases and associations for the conservation of endangered fauna.
The project Unveiling is led by the following researchers: