Pikaia – The online test to “measure” the beauty of butterflies! Contribute to research at the University of Florence and protect European species from the risk of extinction!

What does theAesthetic with the protection of biodiversity? It is possible to build a “meter” to measure the beauty of butterflies and, in this way, to take care of them more effectively the threatened species? Yes, but only if we combine the skills of biologists and those of philosopherswork in little explored areas at the border of disciplines: this is the goal of “Unveiling”, a project funded by the University of Florence and coordinated by the Departments of Literature and Philosophy and Biology. Unveiling aims to highlight, for the first time in a rigorous and in-depth way, the role of beauty and aesthetic experience in the development of effective biological conservation strategies. Guided by Mariagrazia Portera (Department of Letters and Philosophy) and by Leonardo Dapporto (Department of Biology), the project focuses in particular on european butterflies.

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It is known to researchers, in fact, that today about half of Europe’s 496 butterfly species are in decline and that some are threatened with extinction due to climate change and resulting habitat loss. In this sense, protection actions have multiplied in recent years, from the elaboration of the so-called “red list” (red lists of endangered butterflies) to citizen science actions o participatory science with citizen involvement, from awareness campaigns to fundraising initiatives.

Indeed, with the same risk of extinction, not all butterfly species benefit in the same way from these forms of protection. At different levels – from red list writers to ordinary citizens, from environmental associations to public and private financial and interest groups, to individual researchers’ choice of subject matter – there seems to be a kind of “Aesthetic work”where we tend to invest and engage more in the species that are most beautiful to us.

Verifying and quantifying the extent of this important aesthetic bias is one of the objectives of “Unveiling”, thanks to a online trial accessible at this link www.unveiling.eu which will allow everyone to contribute to our research, and through the analysis of butterfly image uploads on the citizen science site iNaturalist. What does a “we like best” species mean? What role do emotions, visual perception and especially what we know (eg in terms of naturalistic information) play in our aesthetic appreciation? To answer these questions we need everyone’s contribution, through the test available on www.unveiling.eu!

unveil the biodiversity test

What we expect, comforted by some promising preliminary data, is that the role of the aesthetic dimension is indeed relevant in protection strategies. In short, it seems that we really tend to invest more and more willingly (in terms of time, resources, space…) for the species that, at the same risk, we find more beautiful. Thus, thanks to the results of Unveiling and once the bias has been observed, national and international protection lists can be revised to be even more effective, national parks and environmental associations can choose their flagship species with full knowledge of the facts. and, in the case of butterflies at risk but initially unattractive, it will be possible to carry out diversified and multi-level actions of remodulation and rehabilitation of aesthetic perception. Unveiling, in fact, does not want to stop at the “criticism” of immediate prejudices, but – from there – to set up capillary initiatives of aesthetic education to biodiversity, emphasizing the role of beauty and aesthetics in environmental protection. As he wrote Rachel Carson in a precious little book for children and parents published in the 1950s, the “sense of wonder” – the sense of wonder – is a powerful tool for the protection of the biotic and abiotic components of the planet.

From a theoretical point of view, “Unveiling” is the first project of the University of Florence of this nature, within the framework of what for ten years has been called internationally “Environmental Humanities”. It is a young but growing field of research that brings together a range of different disciplines – from philosophy to anthropology, sociology to geography, environmental history and literature – in the purpose of thinking and acting effectively, in cooperation with the natural and environmental sciences, against the ecological crisis.

Why the human sciences are also necessary to counter the ecological crisis, alongside the natural and environmental sciences, is easy to say: first, if it is true that human action is the great engine of the current crisis (probably of anthropogenic origin), it is precisely the human sciences (sociology, anthropology, philosophy, history, literature, etc.) that can identify, in cooperation with the “classical” sciences, the most appropriate tools to respond effectively to the crisis. Secondly, the uncertainty and the extreme variability of the possible outcomes to which the ecological crisis exposes us, both in terms of future scenarios and in terms of the range of solutions, find in literature, poetry and the arts indispensable resources for try to imagine the Anthropocene in a “sensitive” way, whose contours often escape canonical perceptual and cognitive tools. In short, it is becoming increasingly clear that the global, complex and multilevel ecological crisis requires radically interdisciplinary approaches.

Philosophers know that the search for beauty and, more generally, the exercise of an aesthetic attitude has always been one of the fundamental forms of human experience. Are human aesthetic by nature and, as Charles Darwin had already guessed, aesthetic sensitivity is a trait whose roots go back to a very ancient, even pre-human past. Bringing out and quantifying the role of the aesthetic dimension in butterfly protection strategies serves, on the one hand, to try to counterbalance instinctive and unconscious aesthetic biases, since the terms of the human aesthetic experience (in its perceptual components, emotional, cognitive, imaginative) are never given once and for all but can be educated and re-addressed.

On the other hand, and more profoundly, “Unveiling” draws attention in an original way to power of beauty as a plastic tool for biodiversity protection actions. The aesthetic dimension attracts us, moves us, motivates us, but it is also flexible and feeds on change!


Mariagrazia Portera is a researcher in Aesthetics at the Department of Letters and Philosophy of the University of Florence. It deals with interdisciplinary approaches to aesthetics, in particular evolutionary aesthetics, environmental aesthetics, environmental humanities, and questions of the history of modern and contemporary aesthetics in the English and German regions.

Leonardo Dapporto he is a researcher in zoology at the Department of Biology of the University of Florence. It deals with biological conservation and the study and protection of biodiversity, with specific reference to butterflies. He has developed statistical tools to study the distribution of butterflies and to monitor their conservation status.

A version of this text was published on May 12, 2022 for UnifiMagazine, the online magazine of the University of Florence: https://www.unifimagazine.it/la-bellezza-della-biodiversita/

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