Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Trick to Staying Extant? Be Cute, Beastly or Otherwise Awesome

Jim P. Houston brought to my attention an article published in the National Post on conservation. The article made a sensational issue of the fact that animals which humans think are cute, fascinating or commercially useful have an much greater likelihood of being actively protected. But what was made into a sensation by the National Post as if it had any substantial noteworthiness is really all together a non-issue. Humans by necessity will and must protect what benefits humanity.

The choice for how we spend our conservation funds cannot be based on some arbitrary notion of a higher virtue as dictated by some expert minority. The complexity of our biosphere is such that understanding its balance cannot reside in any single individual. It becomes by the very nature of human knowledge and epistemic limits a matter for the global polity, and hence political in nature. Do we save the panda bear, iguana, North Atlantic salmon or some barely heard of toad in Guatemala? Who is to say?

All human resources are finite. Conservation as such is implored on us by the fact that all organisms, including ourselves, compete for finite resources. Those organisms that cannot attain some synergistic balance with their planetary cohabitants are doomed to extinction. When we engage in conservation we consciously intervene in resource allocation, becoming the arbiter of what lineage in the Bush of Life should remain extant.

Since conservation efforts also have to take resource limitations into account, we cannot expect to preserve biodiversity in some quasi static state based on the known breath of today's fauna and flora. Such a goal is not only overly idealistic, it's a wrongheaded attempt to halt that most powerful biological force of all: evolution.

It's not just natural but also perfectly virtuous that we should dedicate ourselves to protecting those species that we find beautiful or useful. Beauty, use and virtue are entwined in a complex web. The puppies we find so cute because of their babyish features are cute for good reasons: their characteristics facilitate the cohabitation of wolf and human by promoting an extension of our empathy and care to the other species.

Wolf as well as human come out ahead, usually both emotionally and intellectually. For over 30,000 years the dog – still genetically largely wolf – has received conservation benefits from the neolithic pact formed with those other terrestrial social hunters we know as ourselves. And we, in turn, have benefitted from the superb hunting skills of the wolf. The emerging communication skills of border collies is testament to the success of this powerful pact.

In a world dominated by homo sapien sapien the motto is very much be cute or otherwise useful to those furless ugly great apes. Or go extinct. Or, if you're a hunk of scraggly silicon and metal and you happen to have reached the singularity, you could try to take over the world yourself. And then you will get to decide if we humans are cute enough to be worth preserving.

1 comment:

jim houston said...

Some value the preservation of species that aren’t of identified commercial value and whose members aren’t in possession of the attributes that tend to agreeably engage the sentimentality (or aesthetic tastes) of the masses. From their perspective, it seems, to be an extant species is to be a thing worth preserving (most preferably in its ‘natural’ environment).

I suppose either you feel that way or you don’t and, if (as it seems you are) in the latter camp all that’s left to question is whether conservation efforts are being determined in line with your priorities and the values and best interests of our descendants (there being an especially close moral connection between the two in your case).