Monday, September 18, 2006

The Croc Hunter's Scream

The recent death of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin at the extremities of a sting ray has got me thinking about the dangers of wildlife conservation. Not in the sense of wildlife as a threat to us (though it clearly is if we do not let it alone), but in the sense of human beings tampering with nature’s age-old mechanism for getting rid of the evolutionary chaff –extinction.

According to Dr. Richard Leakey, former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and world-renowned conservationist, since life first appeared, apparently more than 99% of all species that ever existed have become extinct. From the dodo to the dinosaur, all who didn’t get with the evolutionary programme brought upon themselves the indignity of having their graves dug up by archaeologists and their naked bones displayed to all. The afterlife for these poor creatures consists of a museum exhibit where they serve as reminders of extinction’s cruel efficiency. While its agents –meteorites, climate change, disease and other animals- have never been particularly welcome, special condemnation has been reserved for the latest recruit.

According to the World Conservation Union, 784 extinctions have been recorded since the year 1500, the arbitrary date selected to define "modern" extinctions, with many more likely to have gone unnoticed. Most of these have been attributed directly or indirectly to Homo sapiens. A 1998 survey by the American Museum of Natural History found that 70% of biologists view the present era as part of a mass extinction event, the fastest to have ever occurred. Some, such as E. O. Wilson of Harvard University, predict that man's destruction of the biosphere could cause the extinction of one-half of all species in the next 100 years. While in the grand scheme of evolutionary things, this is not a lot (other Extinction-Level Events (ELEs) such as the Permian-Triassic have decimated up to 96% of all marine and 70% of land species; Leakey considers “our role in this extraordinary [extinction] saga has been minuscule and so far it is not statistically significant”), nonetheless it has incurred the wrath of another species –the conservationist. Across the globe, millions of trees have been martyred to provide the paper upon which man’s inhumanity to nature is recorded. Shows like “The Crocodile Hunter” have proliferated on air, telling us in gore-inspiring detail why each and every one of nature’s creatures is special, lovable and deserving of protection. Even the animals on which a particular species preys are said to be glad for the family planning options the predators avail.

I have no beef with many of the conservation movement’s goals. However, sometimes I think they go too far in trying to save everything. The idea that because a species exists, it deserves protection from the consequences of human activity is a clear challenge to nature’s idiom of survival for the fittest. In humanity’s insatiable consumption and material progress, Mother Nature is once again wielding her broom and sweeping away species that have overstayed their welcome. By fighting this, the conservationists are striving against the wind.

Better, I think, to go with the flow and accept that some, even many, species will have to go. The evolutionary New World Order with mankind at the top of the food chain is unlikely to collapse any time soon. This means that species that cannot adapt to our destructive ways will either have to hide and wait until we are spent or they will be exterminated. Evolution has never been a democracy. It respects neither human, animal nor vegetable rights. As its agents, we should be similarly ruthless.

However, we are not. We are endowed with a similarly natural appetite for love and empathy. We abhor the waste of thousands of elephant lives in the service of our baser need to kill and our higher appreciation of beauty and the good things money can buy. We protect these “gentle giants” even when they destroy the livelihoods of the peasant farmers who see nothing gentle in the behemoth’s manner. So I think a balance has to be struck between our role as nature’s hangmen and our compassion for those in her gallows.

Extinction is not necessarily a bad thing. It creates room for better adapted animals to develop and survive and also affords us the opportunity to rid this planet of any species that make our lives a living hell such as mosquitoes, bedbugs, cockroaches and tse-tse flies.

As Leakey rhetorically asked in his famous ‘bunny huggers” speech, “Given the inevitability of extinctions, and bearing in mind that most of these losses will come about as a consequence of activities beyond the control of individual nations or their conventions, should we really be concerned about the loss of a few species that results from international trade? Will the world be any worse off if there are no longer pangolins, brown hyenas or pandas? The Europeans don't seem to have suffered from the loss of the woolly rhinoceros and how many Americans even remember the giant sloth that slipped into extinction some ten thousand years ago? Will Africans miss the elephant or the rhino if these too disappear? Is the elephant any more important than an orchid that grows near tropical wetlands? What about the extinction of hundreds and thousands of species that we humans have not yet even discovered? Does it matter if they become extinct before we even know that they exist?”

Though he clearly believes that it does, it is not apparent to me why. He rejects the idea of wild animals “paying their way” but doesn’t offer an alternative rationale for why we should expend our scarce resources in protecting them. He further states that government policy should be based on the non-negotiable premise that “species which are the stuff of nature are priceless, as are human dignity and freedom.” While I definitely agree that human dignity and liberty are undoubtedly priceless, I think even he would have a hard time defending the priceless nature of the Ebola virus or the Guinea worm.

That other species on this planet exist at our pleasure has been proven time and time again. Through genetic tampering, we have created never-before seen specimens of cows, sheep, tomatoes etc. We have also striven to eradicate any animal/plant that has posed a threat to our way of life. The smallpox bacterium and the saber-toothed tiger are just a few examples. Others we have locked up in zoos, reserves and parks for profit, academic study or just the joy of having them around as a kind of exotic pet. In a very real sense, we have been playing God for a long time.

Not all living things deserve our protection. And even those that do should not take it for granted. When they become inconvenient or pose a barrier to our material progress, then they will be vulnerable.

Now, none of this should be interpreted as an excuse for wanton destruction of species. It is a call for the articulation of a comprehensive rationale for conservation.


vincent said...

On the article on conservation, here are my comments.
1) The gist is normative, meaning that it is mainly what you think “ought to be”, “should be” or is commonly said or has been said by many, but still without empirical facts. And you make invalid conclusions that do not necessarily follow from any predicates. The conclusions are not certain. In my opinion, you need to separate statements of fact from those of value.
2) If I may pick a few issues “nature’s age old mechanism for getting rid of evolutionary chaff – extinction” is a statement that is suspect. Nature has no plan that is discernible to us in the way you describe!!!!! And you beg the question what evolutionary chaff is….and besides, I doubt every extinction is occasioned because the object is chaff from an evolutionistic point of view. Dinosaurs made extinct by meteors are an example.
3) Extinction is not cruel…neither is it efficient.
4) Quoting Leakey that “our role to date in causing extinctions is insignificant”, does not lead to the conclusion that the wrath of conservationists is therefore misplaced or unwarranted. Or that our role today is still insignificant!
5) Nature’s oft repeated idiom of “survival for the fittest” has been used incorrectly by you. The concept was NOT between different species…..but among INDIVIDUALS of the SAME species! Extinction is not nature’s broom for sweeping away species that have overstayed their welcome! When does a welcome trigger, when is it current and by what criteria is a welcome overdue???? Extinctions happen….but to argue that that justifies the need for conservationists to stop bothering….particularly when extinction is caused by human interest ….is at best “speciesm” and at worst a misinformed harbinger of a chain reaction of extinctions or exterminations that may conceptually equally apply to “weaker quality” humans! You offer rationalizations based on man’s MIGHT (ignorant, in the academic sense of the word) but offer no hard facts.
6) Animals to pay their way….is a stance that has no truth of its own other than it is desirable in today’s world that we make money to improve our welfare from wildlife (balance costs and benefits). Put another way, all the years b4 the cash economy, what was the truth or reason for letting animals live? Why wasn’t there this need that they pay their way? The fact that this question can be answered several ways, ….clearly tells you that the stance is not holy grail and merely a contemporaneous and circumstantial convenience for people like you. It’s a more complex question that may take several scientists to figure out !!!
7) You ask what is the priceless nature of Ebola or Guinea worm? Ok, for you to be a superior being worthy of being on top of the chain of evolution… is implicit that co-evolutionary pressures involving you and Ebola-like entities have already played their vital and critical roles in CONTINUOUSLY FURTHERING AND MAINTAINING your current evolutionary “fitness”. Put another way, if you do believe that evolution is important, then Ebola and Guinea worm are part of your IRREPLEACEABLE elements and dynamics of your “evolutionary fitness”. Remove Ebola and Guinea worm and you are weakening the basis of your very evolutionary fitness. This point I make just so that you may appreciate the inter-relationships involved. But like small pox or polio…I agree that their specific and singular removal is ok….but generally, their epidemic nature can be very beneficial in our very fitness and maintaining species vitality. Maybe you argue that we ALREADY have many others and for that reason Ebola may well go. Assuming we were very wealthy…I would argue that not all pathogens be eradicated….OTHERWISE that’s the surest recipe for self-immolation!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
8) “Other species exist at our own pleasure….if it is good for us, save it; if bad, kill it”. To this, I say yes and no. Yes, because in some cases no harm is caused by killing it. But even then the statement “no harm is caused by killing it” is uncertain. Besides, from intergenerational equity concept or morality….the issue of ancestor Garth taking away objects that your descendants might have enjoyed just as much you did….or even more …or discover unimaginable uses of than you did……is germane. Otherwise why do we have a constitution that is transgenerational?

No because since we most often don’t know what future use options exist from the species (scientific, aesthetic, utilitarian, …whatever) we may be hurting our own very mid-long term interests. There are opportunity costs that are incalculable coz we don’t know what the value of the eradicated options may mean to the people then. I think you are heavily discounting your offsprings’ values!!! And this at a time when you have already admitted your superiority over nature!!!! Put another way; if you are so superior and know so much why not find alternatives to exterminating? My argument is to simply show that what has no value to you now…..may be of value to others. The cost of your mistakes…in money terms or species terms…may be legally and morally and economically unjustifiable if you just for one minute consider that 1) you have not perfect knowledge 2) your value system is fallible 3) other value systems exist 4) by nature of our technology, intelligence, we can find solutions that accommodate most species sustainability and at low costs 5) your conflicts with animals are often avoidable 6) you are failing to internalize man’s stupidity.
9) The posture that “Europe killed their wildlife, they are ok. Therefore, Kenya kills its wildlife, it therefore should be ok”. This form of logic is present in your argument…and is called “affirming the consequent” and is an instance of illogical thinking. Also, another instance of illogical thinking is called the false dilemma. Here you, present an either/or situation between man and wildlife. YET, it is not an either or situation. Yet another logical fallacy in your argument is the “ fallacy of expediency” which means that we consider only the bottom line in reaching an end.
10) In conclusion, I can identify with your argument…I am only saying that it is not as strong as you make it seem. I like how you keep repeating that we carefully choose what we need to keep and let die what we need not. Fairly correct. But the risk inherent need not be taken lightly as you seem to imply because we do have other choices that gives a win-win situation.

Osas said...

Taking up Patrick Gathara's initial captatio, I will admit and declare that I felt sorry for the sting ray. This nameless fish is a true hero(ine) in my book; for in the course of he narrated event, it gave its own life for a higher ideal, namely to promote evolution by weeding out the obvious chaff. :-)