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.