The Questionable Authority

Species and The Economist

The Economist is normally my favorite weekly news magazine. It has a much broader focus than any of the major American publications, covers topics in more depth, and uses a vocabulary that goes beyond the 6th grade level. Every now and then, though, they come out with something that makes you wonder what the hell they were thinking – and this week is one of those times.

Their recent opinion piece on species and conservation (which was also picked up by the Wall Street Journal) was written by someone whose head was so far up – well, let’s just say that their scalp’s not getting a lot of sunlight, and leave it at that. The basic thesis of the article is that well-intentioned scientists are splitting single species into multiple species in order to make more populations eligible for conservation efforts. PZ Myers and Loren Coleman have already weighed in on this dreck, but neither seems to be quite as outraged as I am. That’s probably because I’ve got a slightly different perspective than they do – Coleman is a cryptozoologist, and Myers is a developmental biologist. My own research has been in an area of biology called molecular ecology, which is the field responsible for most of the species splitting that The Economist takes to task.

There are a number of reasons that this particular article irritated me. The tone was condescending – the Economist was lecturing at biologists. The article’s thesis is supported by nothing more than bald assertions. The article operates from the entirely unsubstantiated presumption that scientists in my discipline are routinely being dishonest. The article is also largely wrong.

From the article:

As new areas are explored, the number of species naturally increases (see article). For example, the number of species of monkey, ape and lemur gradually increased until the mid-1960s, when it levelled off. In the mid-1980s, however, it started rising again. Today there are twice as many primate species as there were then. That is not because a new wave of primatologists has emerged, pith-helmeted, from the jungle with hitherto unknown specimens. It is because a lot of established subspecies have been reclassified as species.

Perhaps “reclassified” is not quite the right word. “Rebranded” might be closer. Taxonomists do not always get it right first time, of course, and what looked like one species may rightly later be seen as two. But a suspiciously large number of the new species have turned up in the limited group of big, showy animals known somewhat disparagingly as “charismatic megafauna”–in other words the species that the public, as opposed to the experts, care about.

I’m not familiar enough with primates to know whether or not this depiction of the pattern of species description is accurate, but I’ll assume that it is. Actually, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it is. The tools that allow scientists to routinely examine DNA sequences were developed right around then – PCR replication was first developed between 1983 and 1985, and the first automated sequencer became available in 1987. People had been looking at population genetics before then, of course, but the availability of DNA sequencing provided an enormous boost to the field.

Molecular ecology is an important tool when it comes to figuring out whether two populations are the same species or not because it lets you see if the populations are interbreeding at all, and if they are routinely interbreeding. The case of the African elephants, mentioned later in the Economist piece, is a fantastic example of this. Scientists knew that there were some subtle differences in appearance between the savannah elephants and the forest elephants in Africa, and the two groups were considered to be subspecies. A genetic study published in 2001 revealed that genetically, the two populations were much more distinct than many had previously believed, had split from each other much earlier than had been believed, and (most importantly) did not appear to be interbreeding with each other. For most scientists, that was more than enough to justify calling them different species rather than different subspecies. Similar things have happened with many other species as researchers look more closely at the organisms in question.

It’s almost certainly true that this sort of thing has happened more often with the charismatic megafauna than with less photogenic critters. That’s a function of research bias, not conspiracy. As the name implies, the charismatic megafauna are typically charismatic. They’re cute. People like them. People are interested in them. People are often more willing to pay you to research them. The creepy crawly crowd gets less attention than the cute and fuzzy bunch, and you can’t find out what’s going on with them until you do the research.

It might be true, as the Economist article suggests, that people will care less about endangered species if there are more endangered species because if there are more endangered species than each one is less unique and valuable than it would be if there were fewer of them. (If that is true, we’re more screwed up as a species than I thought, but it’s not impossible.) It’s also irrelevant. The genetic research that leads to the description of new species is a critical part of protecting species. If you don’t understand the population genetics for the group you want to protect, you are going to have some real problems designing protections for them.

In order to protect a species, you need to make sure that you are preserving enough of the gene pool. If one part of the gene pool won’t breed with another part, they’re not really the same gene pool, and protection measures are going to need to take that into account. Forest elephants won’t interbreed with savannah elephants in Africa. They are not part of the same gene pool. You can call them one species if you want, but if you want to protect elephants in Africa, you are going to need to treat them as two species .

The same is true for jumping mice, bears, and and many, many other species – even not so cute ones like flies, lizards, and sea urchins. If that creates too many endangered species for comfort, that’s too bad – but don’t shoot the scientists.

After all, we’re just the messengers.

Comments

  1. #1 Davis
    May 21, 2007

    Thanks for this post. My first response upon reading that story in The Economist was “this is a load of crap!” But it’s nice to see it explained exactly why it’s crap.

  2. #2 Tex
    May 22, 2007

    The Economist is a great publication when it comes to reporting the facts, for all of the reasons that Mike outlined. It is seriously whacked when it comes to interpretation and editorial content, which is precisely why I read it. They do the best job of carefully explaining the wrong position on just about everything. I find it useful to know where the opposition is coming from, and there is no better source than The Economist. Seriously.

  3. #3 Melissa
    May 22, 2007

    I have researched forest elephants for years and worked closely with many elephant researchers. I think your statement: “…if you want to protect elephants in Africa, you are going to need to treat them as two species” is not necessarily correct, actually. The prevailing belief among many scientists who study elephants, is that subsplitting would most likely result in severe pressure to delist the savanna populations, particularly in countries where they are growing. They feel it’s safest to keep African eles as one species. It is a difficult issue, but that seems to be where many folks are leaning.

  4. #4 Metro
    May 22, 2007

    I too enjoy the Economist for the reasons you cite. Usually I’m at least a week behind, but I never fail to profit by reading it.

    However, their dedication to the founding principles of economy espoused by Adam Smith seems to sometimes blind them.

    It is therefore not surprising to read that their science writer may have interpreted the facts in this case as some sort of inflation.

    The question is: would it then be logically beneficial to increase scarcity of endangered species so that we will treasure them more?

    Logging, energy, and mining company boardrooms are doubtless poised to help.

  5. #5 Gary Harris
    May 22, 2007

    For accuracy in The Economists own specialty see the letters between their Editors and George Soros.

  6. #6 Justin Levine
    May 22, 2007

    There is an easy way to solve this debate – apply the same logic to humans. Should black Africans and white Europeans be considered part of the same “species”? I’d emphatically say YES. Yet you could still argue “that genetically, the two populations were much more distinct than many had previously believed, had split from each other much earlier than had been believed, and (most importantly) did not appear to be interbreeding with each other.” Therefore what? Are you going to now seriously argue that the two populations aren’t the same “species”?? Here is the more important question: Is it biologically possible for the two groups of elephants to interbreed, even if they might not be inclined to do so on their own? If so – they are the same “species” as the word is understood by laymen. Though maybe the community of biologists use the term differently. If they do, they should strive to explain it better and come up with a more precise vocabulary.

  7. #7 Matt Canavan
    May 22, 2007

    It’s a British magazine not American.

  8. #8 Chinois
    May 22, 2007

    If bald assertions annoy you (as they should), then I don’t understand how The Economist can be your favorite weekly newsmagazine. Unsupported assertions masquerading as reporting are its hallmark, along with bias, sloppy sourcing, and a tediously precious writing style.

  9. #9 Dude
    May 23, 2007

    Chinois,

    Were you being purposely ironic, since your own statements are nothing more than bald assertions?!

    For that matter, it seems that all the blog commentary here is essentially unsupported opinion, since no substantive evidence is provided to back up all the sundry claims.

  10. #10 Paul Turner
    May 23, 2007

    I agree completely with the main points Mike Dunford makes in his article, but Melissa’s post suggests that the Economist may have a point, too. The Economist apparently believes that some biologists are willing to let politics overrule science in order to game endangered species legislation by excessive splitting of species. Dunford, quite reasonably, says new tools have resulted in some splitting of species, due to improved knowledge of which populations interbreed. Regardless of politics, we need to get the science right, he says, because we can’t protect a species if we don’t understand its population genetics. Melissa counters this scientific point with one that sounds purely political me. She says that she and her fellow elephant researchers believe we can protect African elephants best by treating them as one population, because otherwise we might be forced to delist the savannah elephants. In other words, in this case we need to lump species for political reasons. It still sounds like letting politics overrule science in order to game endangered species legislation. If her view is widely shared, then maybe the Economist doesn’t have its head as deeply buried as Dunford thinks. If so, don’t shoot the journalists.

  11. #11 Sara
    May 23, 2007

    The thing is that the definition of species is useful for scientists, but ultimately arbitrary. In my work I deal sometimes with classification of bacteria and other microbes, and I can assure the folks at the Economist that reorganization of the less sexy species is quite common, and yes, due to better knowledge of their genetics. After all, we don’t have the criteria that a species must appear alike and interbreed, since there is no sexual reproduction (unless you count conjugation). If you’re a doctor, you don’t care a lot how much ribosomal genetic info two microbes share as long as they look the same under the microscope, act the same in different chemical environments, cause the same symptoms in human beings, and can be treated with the same antibiotics. People interested in evolutionary lineages and relationships, however – taxonomists – do care, and they seem to be doing a pretty good job of classiying this stuff, as far as I can tell. The Economist is worried that the term “species” will lose all meaning, but that’s because they think that a species is something that an organism evolves into, not a title we can give to a population that has a certain set of characteristics.

  12. #12 Branden
    May 23, 2007

    Thanks Tex for the great review of the Economist. I read a web log called WorldNetDaily.com for exactly the same reasons: I like to know what the opposition is thinking, and how they form their arguments.

    Mike, thank you for the informative article. I’ve spoken with several biologists that couldn’t have defined speciation as well as you did.

  13. #13 ompus
    May 23, 2007

    Even the greatest batters strike out. If Hank Aaron was as good as the Economist, Barry Bonds would have another 700 homeruns to go.

  14. #14 Chinois
    May 23, 2007

    The article the blog entry refers to echoes pretty closely my own reaction when I read it. Here’s a critique, less tightly reasoned than the blog entry above and off in the weeds in spots, but still with some good points, of another recent Economist piece: http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2007/4/14/132259/545

    They supported the Iraq war and only recently have acknowledged it for the ongoing disaster it has been for years now.

    And here’s a snippet from the latest edition:
    “The second is her inheritance of the centrist ‘Clintonian’ creed-which accepts the importance of the market but argues that the government needs to intervene to help the losers.”
    http://www.economist.com/world/na/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_JTJGNPT
    Losers? Some who rely on public funds do so fraudulently or are perhaps otherwise worthy of such a loaded word. Lumping that person with someone whose severe mental illness or other disability precludes economic self-sufficiency is sloppy thought or diction, a disturbingly unguarded comment, or unnecessarily nasty.

    When I write a chapter or article, facts are referenced and opinions are identified as such. Here, however, I’m not a journalist nor have I ever claimed to be.

    In referring to itself as a newspaper, The Economist wraps itself in the nobler mantle of journalism, the one with a firewall between reporting and analysis. Even a cursory read of The Economist reveals that not to be the case. It is an advocacy newsmagazine, nothing less or more.

  15. #15 kurtosis
    May 24, 2007

    I’ll put in my two cents and say that I also find the Economist to be quite overrated.

    They do a great job of providing facts and detailed information. When it comes to opinion and analysis they seem so pleased with their “rational” center-right outlook that they can’t be bothered to make compelling arguments. A lot of the points that they do make are a rehash of the conventional center-right wisdom, which has already been set out by other columnists, or else strangely off base. For instance, a while ago they had a piece claiming that the immigration in the US was largely supported by Republicans, and only seriously opposed by the Democratic base voters. There was also a recent article going on for several pages about country music and how it represents the heart of authentic America that liberal politicians just can’t understand (hasn’t this trope been done to death already?). But in articles on African-American voters, rather than asking whether Republicans are out of touch with them, they bemoan that blacks are too small minded to consider voting republican.

    For all the fluff in Time and Newsweek, a lot of their columnists (Fineman, Clift, Chris Dickey, Tony Karon) write much more thoughtful pieces than anything in the Economist.

    The other thing the Economist lacks is any investigative reporting or attempts to discuss issues that can’t be reduced to a bunch of data. There were, for example, recent Time and Newsweek pieces on the current trajectory of the Republican party – the sort of subjective issue that the Economist almost never goes into.

  16. #16 Metro
    May 25, 2007

    The best reason to read the Economist is that its bias is baldly stated right on the cover.

    Yes, it prefers to reduce much to numbers and data (regular readers could tell you, Chinois, that the magazine uses the word “losers” much differently than you seem to think). But they get their facts straight more often than the popular press.

    They also state their position quite baldly, without any pretended attempts at playing “neutral”, and often admit that they were wrong. They generally present at least two sides of any argument and often come to the usually-true conclusion that the truth lies somewhere between.

    They supported the Iraq invasion. Big deal. So did I. So did much of the world and at least 50% of Americans. But they said quite early on that the Bush administration seemed to lack the political will to live up to the responsibility of rebuilding the place.

    If given the choice between Murdoch and Fox, the Aspers and the National Post, the Globe and Mail, and possibly even the Gray Lady, or the Economist, then I’ll take the Economist every time.

  17. #17 Mark UK
    May 31, 2007

    Jeez, I didn’t realize I was the oppostion… Sorry, I think the Economist is mostly an excellent paper. Sure they get it wrong sometimes. Sometimes factually and sometimes just in my opinion. But hey, I don’t agree with my wife all the time either…

    It’s an excellent paper with a broad range of articles and usually provides more background than other mainstream media. I even tend to agree with them a lot. Must make me evil… Mmmmm… Always wanted to be evil!

  18. #18 linzel
    May 31, 2007

    As I am constantly reminded, we need to stick to the area of our expertise. I also like(d) the economist but for what it was designed for – econimical and business reports including regional politics [They seem to go hand in hand]. I think it justified that Mike can critique what the economist is not when pertaining to ecological bio. Let the experts share their ideas and keep the rest of us informed? How else? Its the reason I love scienceblogs.

  19. #19 al??veri?
    January 5, 2008

    For accuracy in The Economists own specialty see the letters between their Editors

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