Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Live and Let Die

Across the globe, millions of trees have been martyred to provide the paper upon which the sorry tale of man’s inhumanity to nature is recorded. Animal shows and channels dedicated to them have proliferated on air, telling us why each and every one of nature’s creatures is special, lovable and deserving of protection. However, sometimes I think it useful to question the rationale. Does nature accord each and every species a right to exist? Do we have an obligation to protect them all from the consequences of human activity?

The indisputable answer to the first question is a resounding no! No species on this earth, humans included, enjoys an absolute right to exist, at least not one that Mother Nature recognizes. According to Dr. Richard Leakey, former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and world-renowned conservationist, since life first appeared, more than 99% of all species that ever existed have become extinct. From the dodo to the dinosaur, all who didn’t get with nature’s evolutionary programme brought upon themselves the indignity of having their graves dug up by archaeologists and their naked bones displayed to all and sundry.

Far from being rare, extinction is very much a fact of life. It is nature’s age-old mechanism for getting rid of the evolutionary chaff. From the very beginnings of life on this planet, extinction’s agents have come in many forms -meteorites, climate change, disease and other animals- none of which have been particularly welcome. However, special condemnation has been reserved for the latest incarnation, Homo Sapiens.

By most accounts, we are living in a period of mass extinctions. Writing in the American Scientist magazine, Dr. Donald A. Levin notes that the rate of extinction occurring in today's world is exceptional -as much as 100 to1,000 times greater than normal. Anywhere from 35 -150 species disappear every day. In 2008, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the world's main authority on the conservation status of species, "confirmed an extinction crisis, with almost one in four [mammals] at risk of disappearing forever". 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.

While man undoubtedly bears some blame for this state of affairs, his contribution has been less than stellar. Leakey considers “our role in this extraordinary [extinction] saga has been minuscule and so far…not statistically significant”. And while 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, in the grand scheme of evolutionary things, this is not a lot. Other Extinction-Level Events (ELEs) such as the Permian-Triassic decimated up to 96% of all marine and 70% of land specie. Nonetheless, the “crisis” has many people worried.

The typical reaction has been to attempt to save everything. Extinction, though, is not necessarily a bad thing. It creates room for better adapted species to develop and survive and also affords us the opportunity to rid this planet of any 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?”

Actually, to try to preserve everything would be 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. 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.

We, though, have a vested interest. Our physical and economic well being is tied to the fate of many other species. For example bees, which the world over have been dying from a mysterious syndrome termed colony collapse disorder, or CCD, threaten enormous consequences. Experts at Cornell University in upstate New York have estimated the value bees generate in the US alone - by pollinating fruit and vegetable plants, almond trees and animal feed like clover - at more than $14 billion. In fact, animals provide pollination services for over three-quarters of the staple crop plants that feed human kind and for 90% of all flowering plants in the world. As Albert Einstein once put it, “no more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

We are also endowed with a 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. We protect these “gentle giants” even when they destroy the livelihoods of 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.

Not all living things deserve our protection. And even if we wanted to, we could scarcely afford the investment it would take to save them all. We need a rationale for prioritizing which species to preserve and which to let go. Leakey declares 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. The argument that viruses and other lethal parasites play a vital role in assuring our evolutionary “fitness” by eliminating weaker individuals is undercut by the acknowledged priceless nature of human dignity. It is a safe bet that theirs is a service that we would gladly do without.

My motto is: If the species is good for us then we save it. If it’s bad for us, then we kill it. If it doesn’t fall in either category, then it takes care of itself and good luck to it. Of course, this should not be taken as a license for extermination of all but the most obviously beneficial animals. Since we are often ignorant of future benefits of certain species, we need to hedge our bets through solutions that accommodate as many as possible without injuring our interests. All the same, we live in the present and while storing up for the future, let’s be careful we do not starve ourselves today.

That many organisms on this planet exist at our pleasure has been proven time and time again. And not just in regard to extinction. Through genetic tampering, we have created never-before seen specimens of cows, sheep, tomatoes etc. We have 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. It’s about time we learnt to live and let die.


Anonymous said...

let me ask you several questions and make some corrections. My objective is that if the premise on which you derive rightness of your motto is shaky, you must come down from your position, if not abandon it altogether.

1)that extinctions were “particularly welcome”… I am yet to come across any literature that demonstrates that losing the dodo, passenger pigeon, Sabre toothed-lion was either welcome or unwelcome. Welcome to whom…humans or other species or nature in general?
2)Mother nature weeding out species that have “over-stayed”. Who had welcomed them in the first place…and who decided they had over-stayed this welcome? MOTHER NATURE HAS NO AGENDA THAT WE KNOW OF.
3) “Go with the flow of extinction or evolution”? Why, when we are artificially stopping even weak and sickly humans from dying? If nature makes you sick eg from malaria, or gives you bad eyesight, why not “go with the flow” and let you die since nature already picked you out as susceptible? What will you do with extinctions that are not natural…but are clearly man-driven? Why should evolutionary flow in animals be encouraged…while stopped in humans?
4) How do you know whats good for us? How do you negotiate this goodness over time? How do you discount this goodness over time and various contexts eg north-south divide of geopolitics? What formula and what criteria?
5) Do you believe that many organisms exist at our pleasure? If so why does HIV and Mosquitoes exist today…? do you know that more organisms (subterrenean, marine, micro and harmful) ACTUALLY exist despite our displeasure (or ignorance) of them? If so, how can your premise that “they exist at our pleasure” stand as a truth? If our “pleaseureness” is key to existence of other species (eg bees) why CANT our “pleasure principle” stop bees disappearing in certain parts? Does this therefore mean that your “pleasure premise” is half-baked, fallacious and probably overrated as a hypothesis?
6) Why do you say that extinction creates room for better adapted species? Is it what you understand or have u come across evidence that this is the case? You are DEAD WRONG on this. Extinction does not befall POOR QUALITY species or WORSE ADAPTED species. This is not necessarily true as some well adapted species have as well died. The pasenger pigeon for example, or the dodo, or the mayans or inca did not seem to be poorly adapted to anything or in any way that we know of.
7) How perfect is your knowledge on desirability of hyenas, pangolins and pandas? Is it a matter of you assuming current knowledge approximates perfect knowledge? If so, what do you do with the fact that knowledge is incremental over time? Can a snake be desirable among the ibo of nigeria, tortoise over the akan of ghana, and still both be undesirable to the luo of kenya? Who is right?
8) How do you determine worthiness of a creature for protection? Tourism revenue, food, drought power….anything else?
9) If 99% species have gone extinct…what does that tell you? That one more species wont make a difference or that remaining 1% is very valuable, in relative terms?
10) Do you know natures evolutionary programme? What makes you think that evolution gets rid of evolutionary chaff? AGAIN, this is not TRUE yet you take it to be.

Gathara said...

Your first two objections are mainly of a semantic nature. It is obvious, or should be, that I am not trying to impute a concious intention or agenda on natural phenomena just your reference to "Mother Nature" should not be taken to impute gender.

I have stated in the article that we humans are not interested in our own demise. "The argument that viruses and other lethal parasites play a vital role in assuring our evolutionary “fitness” by eliminating weaker individuals is undercut by the acknowledged priceless nature of human dignity. It is a safe bet that theirs is a service that we would gladly do without." We only "go with the flow" when it does not threaten human dignity and life.

I have neither claimed to know what is good for us nor to provide a mechansm for ascertaining that knowledge. That is the province of others far more knowledgeable than I. I only try to set out a framework within which such questions can be tackled.

Animals existing at our pleasure is just another way of saying that we reserve for ourselves the right to eliminate any organism that we deem inimical to our well being. That we are not always successful is not a negation of this statement.

What were the pasenger pigeon, dodo,mayans or inca well adapted to? Not the prevailing circumstance at the time of their demise otherwise they would have survived.

That 99% of species have gone extinct simply tells me that extinction is the norm, not the exception. That fact doesn't make the remaining species any more or less valuable.

Anonymous said...

your take that eliminating weaker individuals is undercut by the acknowledged priceless nature of human pure non-sequitor...and panders to speceism in which the fact of membership to the human group is itself a basis of superiority/truth. the concept of human dignity is a convenient abstract we invent to navigate our ethics. otherwise...why cant "bacteria dignity" or "pigeon dignity" accord them same rights as humans? the pasenger pigeon, dodo,mayans or inca were well adapted to their prevailing environment, otherwise they wouldnt have live that long!!!. they lost when something drastically CHANGED in their environment. something they couldn't cope with! so it wasnt for lack of adaptation...but for a disturbance they did not cope with.
if remaining 1% species are no more or less valuable...why the human superiority ala racism? i think in your argument you present a position...but fail to defend it from fundamental principles of how the position is. we are at the top of animal chain..but that fact alone cannot be a basis of right or wrong.

Gathara said...

I totally agree that human covenants and concepts such as "dignity" are abstract and, in a sense, arbitrary. We do not accord similar rights to animals. That is the very essence of my article. Why should we?

That "the pasenger pigeon, dodo,mayans or inca were well adapted to their prevailing environment, otherwise they wouldnt have live that long" is patently obvious. it is equally obvious that when "something drastically CHANGED in their environment, something they couldn't cope with", then after that point they either were no longer suited to the prevailing environment. Others that either were (or became so) survived.

While it is undeniable that we are the dominant species, human superiority expressed as a right is an artificial construct. But so is any attempt to assert a "right" for any living thing. The humans who concieve of and develop such concepts can tune them to their own ends and purposes as well as define the limits of their application.

Anonymous said...

fundametalism racism, speceism...they all are the same phenomenon that claim RIGHTNESS as a reason detre. Group an arbitrary basis for deriving fundamental rights. i think this where i disagree with you. do what you want to...decide whether lions live or die...but be careful how you justify it. being or not being human club...does not confer less or more inalienable rights. and human dignity falls flat as source of rights over animals.

ok...kill or save...under whatsoever justification...but not from one of RIGHT based on your membership to the human group. on the other hand...i can argue that all species have equal rights, simply because they all exist on the same planet. however, demonstrating which of the species has more or less of rights....i fear i cannot do convincingly. i just cannot see a single premise/basis to mount such a proposition.

i totally disagree with your conclusion that "The humans who conceive of and develop such concepts can tune them to their own ends and purposes as well as define the limits of their application". rather, they must CONVINCE with well reasoned arguments. they cannot arbitrarily abrogate rights from the ether...they MUST SUFFICIENTLY DEMONSTRATE the source of those rights.

Gathara said...

The premises of the "well-reasoned arguments" you seek are bound to be human inventions for it is plain that concepts such as equality and rights are to be found nowhere in nature. Some people are born to fame and riches, others to soul-destroying poverty; some with limbs, others without; some healthy, others not; yet we insist on an equality at creation. That is a convenient abstraction conjured up from the ether to aid human beings in their search for better and more meaningful lives (even as we admit, via evolution, that life has no intrinsic meaning). How then can other animals come to claim a share in this fiction unless we choose to admit them? And you have not demonstrated any compelling reason why we should.

Anonymous said...

i am saying that within those human abstractions...some rules of reasoning and logic have been have tested and recognised as acceptable. i never said animals "claim or demand" this recognition of rights.that humans form a group is clear...but how that "membership" confers these lower/higher rights over other critters is what i am looking for. i am aware that humans are powerful and mighty over several others. BUT, i have been very compelling in quashing any pretext as to the assumption that by dint of being humans, ergo, we have rights.... and these rights that no other animals have. i think it is more logical to start that while things are in different groups...until we find a defensible basis for assigning more rights to each...they ought to remain equal, at least for the purposes of inhabiting the earth. while we eat sheep...the actual reasons why we have more rights to life than sheep is very hard to construct (wanna try?). except we can eat sheep...and no one so far has stopped us. that they cannot talk and argue their rights should not give you comfort. babies cant talk either, so not being able to argue is no basis.

well reasoned is for example appropriate in the premise that "we are all born equal, with inalienable rights...". this statement while not self-evident...provides the only best and fairest position from which to negotiate or morals and ethics. the position can be argued and defended and demonstrated to be so. and it is not group specific, as it refers to all humans. so when you refer to all species, you need to tell as a matter of principle why others have more/less rights over others. group membership can be a starting point...but develop and show why that group has these rights above other groups. so far, you only have said that it is in our "interest".

Gathara said...

I have nowhere asserted a "right" either for animals, humans or vegetables. On the contrary, the article clearly avers that "evolution...respects neither human, animal nor vegetable rights."

It is you who introduces the discourse on rights vide:"why cant 'bacteria dignity' or 'pigeon dignity' accord them same rights as humans?"

I have clearly stated that rights are artificial constructs designed to further human interests, It is you who must demonstrate a compelling reason for the inclusion of other species in that regime.

You have basically created a strawman argument which you have "compellingly" won without having to tackle the substance of my piece.

Anonymous said...

there is no need to include animals in the human regime of rights. and i need not demonstrate that. i had refuted the validity of your motto coz you seemed to derive it from "human interests", "human dignity" and "humans at the top of the food chain" membership to the human club. i only wanted to point out that while i accepted our position in the food chain...we must not abrogate superiority based on arbitrary RIGHTS and derivations of group membership. i wanted to make you alive to the fallibility of the PREMISE of your motto. your motto does not seem to derive from any fundamental arguments...other than one of human might and power. i did not actually argue for animal/vegetable rights...i only wanted you not to assume rights to humans where none was demonstrable. eg humans can kill other animals...but not from a position of RIGHTS eg natural ones. i accept that knowledge is an abstraction..but because it is human originated (anthropogenic)i also refute that truth of knowledge is anthropocentric. there are rules to follow to ascertain how true or valid your motto is. and that is what i applied....i hope i did not come out as engaging in a strawman!!!!!!!!