Monday, July 29, 2013

“I Like Killing Flies”

A bioethicist for the Fish and Wildlife Service made the argument recently that humans have a duty to do what they can to save the species threatened by our destruction of their environment. I thought that a pretty bold statement for an ethicist who, unfortunately, didn’t elaborate on how he came to that conclusion. There are layers of unexamined assumptions in that categorical statement, not the least of which being that humans have any responsibility towards anything, much less another species. Where, pray tell, would these responsibilities come from and what would they be. Not to mention, how did he know about these responsibilities? Who made him the interpreter? I felt I was listening to George Bush: “I am the decider.”

The ethicist was talking about a plan to kill barred owls to make way for spotted owls. Thanks to habitat destruction, spotted owls have been losing ground, and they’re facing heavy pressure from barred owls which are increasing ground. The idea is to thin out a populous species to make room for a threatened species; threatened due to loss of habitat due to human activities.

At that level, we can all (I hope) agree that loss of habitat from human disturbance is probably the cause of the spotted owl’s decline. We can probably agree that the drastic decline in the number of species worldwide is caused by human destruction of habitats. What we’re going to have trouble with is agreeing that we should or have to do anything about it. The asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, did it have a responsibility to the species it wiped out? Does a disease have a responsibility to its host?

I don’t think so.

There are no a priori responsibilities in the universe. There are no rights in the universe. It’s as simple as that. All rights and all responsibilities are created by people.

Rights and responsibilities are, essentially, aesthetic decisions. Ethical decisions, moral decisions are aesthetic decisions. The Golden Rule is an aesthetic decision: people don’t like getting punched.

One can make the argument that every member of every species has an inherent responsibility to perpetuate its kind. Presumably, “perpetuate” means, not only propagate, but provide for, as well. We all have to take care of our own kind; it’s the only obvious task we’re given. Beyond that, everything’s open to possibilities.

Which ultimately means that, unless it impacts us, that fate of the spotted owl is its own problem. From the bioethicist’s standpoint, saving the spotted owl because we’ve destroyed its habitat is purely aesthetic, but that doesn’t mean it’s valueless or unreasonable. We can all honor diversity of all kinds, owl species included, and do what we can to maintain as many as we can for our own enjoyment. Most of us can appreciate parks and wilderness set-asides for those very reasons. But killing one species for the supposed benefit of another has to be carefully weighed. Most likely, the barred owls are moving in on underutilized territory, and that, even if there were no barred owls, the loss of habitat would still doom the spotted owl. And, even should killing barred owls stabilize the spotted owl population, one would assume that killing would have to be regularly done in order to protect the spotted owls. It’s unlikely that a one-time operation would solve the problem.

It’s problematical to try and maintain a single species whose habitat has disappeared; even if it can be done, is there justification for the cost and effort? Could not the same cost and effort be put towards maintaining species capable of holding their own? In other words, how big should the zoo be?

There is no question that we are the asteroid, but there’s more question about whether or not we can reverse the asteroid. That seems particularly hopeless. Stewart Brand’s current fantasy of reviving the passenger pigeon is an egregious example of that thinking; even if a species can be somehow artificially maintained, without its natural habitat, it will never be a viable creature. It’s an odd ego-trip that makes one want to play god. (Surely there’s a line here about old habitats never die, they just get paved away.)

A large portion of the human race is living in denial. And that’s not including the climate-change doubters. I repeat: we are the asteroid; the world will never be the same again. Ever. We are a naturally occurring disaster; for all we know, it’s already happened on billions of other planets. That’s not our problem; our problem is denying that it’s happening here.

You want a good example?

Invasive species.

How many times have you heard warnings and horror stories about invasive species? A zillion, right? Two zillion, whatever. And we all know what an invasive species is, right? One that’s not natural to the area.

“Not natural,” what’s that?

But let’s step further back a minute: “invasive species.” What’s that?

If I’ve got the story right, every species begins with a mutation, some change which makes a new, slightly different, species which makes use of new ground somehow. If it succeeds, it has offspring who have offspring who have offspring who cover as much of the world as they can. There they go, invading wherever they can. It would appear that any successful species, by definition, invades wherever it can. Like us. Here we are, the most successfully invasive species in the history of the planet, and we’re complaining about those species hanging onto our coattails. Or, at least, the ones we don’t like.

That’s the denial part. We have an illusion that everything should stay the same after we arrive except that we are there. Except for the roads we build. Except for the farms we build. Except for the cities we build. Except for the factories we build. Except…

Okay, about those invasive species; which ones were they again? Oh yes, the ones we don’t like. We don’t seem to complain so much about acres of invasive soybeans, do we? It’s the plants and animals that come along without asking that piss us off. It’s okay if we shag them along with us, but if they hitch a ride, they’re a no-no. Everyone knows that.

Small aside: You know those signature golden hills of summer in California? Everything that’s golden, all that splendid grass, is “non-native,” to California; and by that I mean it arrived after the arrival of the European-Americans. That’s our dividing line; if was here before the white man, it’s native, regardless of how arbitrary a rule that is.

And that’s what we mean by “invasive”: we know when it arrived and we don’t like it. If it showed up before us, it’s fine. (We feel the same way about people, too, but that’s another story.)

So, Mr. Ethicist, you can do what you can to save the spotted owl from flickering out; but I’d rather you did it without riding in on the high horse of moral duty; a duty that is questionable ethically and practically. I’d rather you said, “I like the spotted owl and want to do what I can to save it. And would you mind helping me pay for it?” I might even be willing to chip in some bucks. But trying to guilt-trip us into saving the spotted owl might backfire in the long run.

Just saying.

There is an argument, though, that goes: even though, as Earth-bound animals go, we’re quite clever, we have only a rudimentary grasp of how the web of life is stitched together, and we have no idea which species might, in the future, prove our salvation; hence, it behooves us, for our own future options, to keep as many of them open as possible; i.e. keep as great a diversity of life forms alive as possible. Now, that’s an entirely selfish reason to maintain diversity, but it’s reasonable and practical. From that viewpoint alone, it argues to keep the spotted owl with us. But, as we’re going to have to save millions of species, we have to do a cost analysis of which are more valuable to save and where should we spend our money. Simply because we “owe it to them” is not enough. We owe it to everybody; the question is, who can we reasonably expect to save and of what benefit do we think they might have for us?

Mind you, I’m not saying don’t blow the barred owls away. Who knows, maybe we have a glut of them. I like eating; I understand the need to kill things. But I’d like to think I’m getting a bang for my buckshot. I want to be convinced that this is a good expenditure of public funds, that it will safeguard our future. Right now it appears sisyphean.

Do other species have rights? No; but that doesn’t mean we have to be wanton or cruel. Nothing wrong with being nice guys; we should try it some time. I’m all for saving everything and having parks as big as all outdoors, but I’ve got a limited amount of bucks. Where should I spend them?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tough call.

“Primitive human society ‘not driven by war’”
BBC 18 July 2013

Researchers from Abo Academy University in Finland say that violence in early human communities was driven by personal conflicts rather than large-scale battles.

They say their findings suggest that war is not an innate part of human nature, but rather a behaviour that we have adopted more recently.
The research team based their findings on isolated tribes from around the world that had been studied over the last century.

About those “isolated tribes”: if I read the sentences correctly, it would appear that the researchers are extending their findings of isolated modern tribes to prehistorical human group behavior. It would appear there are tons of assumptions there that haven’t been addressed, the most important of which being the assumption that the behavior of modern tribal societies mirrors that of past tribal societies. Without detailing exactly why one would make that assumption, the entire rest of their argument is suspicious. Why should we assume that all tribal societies throughout our time on the Earth have behaved similarly? What evidence do we have that that’s true?

Remaining tribal societies live in generally inhospitable places with minimal pressures from anyone wanting to take over their territory. I’m not sure those societies would behave the same as ones in the middle of resource-rich environments with many peoples coveting their land/territory. Furthermore, the remaining tribal societies are almost all in a permanent state of warfare with their neighbors as were the native societies of Europe and America and Asia. A reader of Peter Matthiessen’s Under the Mountain Wall, would get a very different picture of warfare among modern tribal societies than the authors present. It’s hardly personal feuds, as the authors suggest. One would have to examine their data carefully. But even if they found that most modern conflicts are limited personal conflicts, it doesn’t mean that larger-scale operations haven’t always operated in resource-rich areas. It’s a big jump that, perhaps, the authors cover in their paper but was missed in the reporting. One hopes.

The issue, it would seem, is one of scale. Small, local conflicts can be described as personal conflicts; but that may just be because hunting-gathering societies don’t tend to gather in such large organized masses as farming societies do, so the conflicts of farmers tend to be larger in scale than those of hunter-gatherers. Are the authors reserving the use of war to large-scale conflicts? That would seem defeating and inaccurate. In the end, it seems a semantic problem more than anything else.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers

…The fact that, in general, only the best-adapted member of a species will survive to reproductive age.
        pg. 118, Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers, Michael White

[Having no way to contact Mr. White, I thought I'd let this note free on the Internet. Go, little note, fly away.]

Dear Michael,

My son thoughtfully turned me onto your book and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it. I do quibble about the style sheet used to inform your punctuation, but that’s a minor point.

A somewhat larger point is illustrated by the sentence reprinted above, the one about “best-adapted members,” which itself illustrates a common misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution. As written, the sentence implies that natural selection is done at the individual level, the same error the social Darwinists make (and, frankly, most people).

The reality is that individual survival has little or nothing to do with natural selection. In general, most members of a species survive until reproductive age as one mounts the evolutionary chain. Those species designed with massive infant-death rates—frogs, say—are designed with the scatter-shot effect in mind: those who survive do so because of sheer luck, the predator didn’t find them; one has enough offspring that who gets eaten is immaterial. By the time one gets to, say, zebras or people, most offspring are expected to survive.

Natural selection is done at the genomic level. What that says is that, on average, individuals who possess mutation X have a better reproductive rate than those who don’t possess it. It’s concerned about the overall average, not the success of any particular individual. For example, an individual might have a mutation which would allow the possessors, on average, a longer life span; but that individual might have only one offspring before being dispatched by misfortune. Nonetheless, thanks to that one offspring, the mutation could be spread throughout the species, even though it gave no benefit to the individual in whom the mutation occurred.

The confusion appears to be a conflation of pecking order and natural selection. It’s fairly understandable that, observing natural pecking orders, one thinks that the selecting done to achieve that order is the same selecting that determines the direction of evolutionary change or dominance. They are unrelated, but, unfortunately, most people equate the two, as the quoted sentence illustrates.

Pecking orders evolved, not to insure that the best genes get together, but rather to maintain order within the species. Not only did pecking orders evolve, so did infidelity, which insures that, despite pecking orders, the gene pool will continue to be thoroughly mixed. It’s the mixing which is important, not the dominance.

Thanks for your time,

Johan Mathiesen
Portland, OR