Last night I became embroiled in an interesting discussion: is the survival of a species (or, insert word here) inherently valuable, in and of itself? Does the fact that it currently exists *right now* somehow entitle it to preservation, or at least restraint when it comes to its demise?
The context I was thinking of was in regards to conservation. We’ve all heard the startling statistic that dozens of species go extinct every year, however this is mostly insects, plants, etc. These events do not make the news, or even cause a blip in the radar of conservation groups like the WWF, PETA, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, etc. Does anyone really care about the goat-gut parasite that went extinct after widespread antibiotic usage? No, they don’t. But, consider certain other animals like whales, pandas, tigers, birds: these species somehow merit our protection and concern when their numbers dwindle. Therefore perhaps it really all just boil down to whether or not humans currently view a species as valuable in some way. This value does not have to be exclusively monetary; pandas sure don’t contribute anything to our economy. The value we receive from them is largely emotional and educational.
We preserve the panda because *we like it,* we preserve Rare Orchid X because it contains some medicinal chemical, we preserve cows/chickens/etc because they give us food, we preserve whales because of their unique niche in the sea’s ecosystem. The distinction is at our whim. However, I wonder if this is the best route to take. We may not yet know that Ugly Bug Z is an important food source to something else, or may provide us with a treatment for a human disease. Therefore our evaluation of what is worth conserving is limited by the current state of knowledge of that thing. This certainly makes the case for the importance of ecologists, biologists, entomologists, botanists, and all the other “ologists.”
Its rather depressing to think of it this way, but many species that are now on this Earth will meet their extinction at the hands of humans whether intentional or not. As biodiversity shrinks, so do the possibles of understanding ourselves and our own maladies. Even if your goal is merely the survival and propagation of humanity, it is quite clear that the existence of other species, at the very least, bolsters our own. In that light, the current criteria as to what species are worth our protection, and what aren’t, are probably faulty. We’re swayed by cuteness, helplessness, beauty, intelligence, and friendliness to humans as well as pure utilitarian usefulness. If PETA wants donations, it knows to put a cute whimpering puppy on a flyer. People aren’t likely to donate if you put a big ugly pufferfish on the front, even though their venom (tetrodotoxin) has contributed extensively to research and medicine.
I guess what I’m saying is that human society has expanded to such a level that it is having widespread negative impact on the majority of the world species, and it might be useful to be able to determine where conservation research and resources might best be applied in a way that isn’t mostly arbitrary.
UPDATE: Josh from Thoughts From Kansas responds.