Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

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.


  1. #1 jebyrnes
    February 1, 2007

    Yes. Yes yes yes. YES. At least, that’s what my research tells me. I work in the field of how Biodiversity (i.e. number of species – even rare ones – or genotypes) impact ecosystem function. The overwhelming evidence points to the loss of even a single species having consequences. Sometimes, in the case of a keystone species (one that has a huge impact on a system despite it’s relatively low boimass – e.g. Pisaster from the work of Bob Paine in the rocky intertidal of Tatoosh island) the effect can be dramatic. Sometimes it is more subtle, but as more and more species are lost, the effect can snowball. Sometimes this effect may not be seen on a small spatial or temporal scale, but as one pulls back, the effect becomes more apparent. There are a few good reviews on the topic out there, including some huge one’s from Ecological Monographs. I think the best example of combining field and experimental data is the recent review of Worm et al. in Science which, contrary to what the media picked up on, is not mostly about fisheries collapsing in 2048 (that’s in a parenthetical towards the end) but is rather about the overwhelming support for biodiversity in the oceans (either # of species of # of genotypes) as having tremendous consequences for community and ecosystem functioning – even right down to the amount of fish you can extract from the ocean to go on your dinner plate.

    If you want a more through reading list (even demonstrating the importance of locust gut bacteria and rare plants), let me know, and I’d be happy to provide the greatest hits from my endnote library.

    See also this wikipedia article

  2. #2 Markk
    February 1, 2007

    Well there is a plausible ranking, besides being cute, for people to concentrate on generally big top end animals. That is, that they are proxies for their local environment – to have Panda’s in the wild you need the bamboo forest ecosystem to be healthy enough in a wide range to support them. To have whales you need that ecosystem from the algae to krill and associated species. The big bucks in preservation nowadays (I think I have seen numbers from the Nature Conservancy, but I can’t find them) are in ecosystem preservation rather than in individual species preservation. The big, well known species species are often, as said, a proxy, where an intestinal parasyte isn’t one, or perhaps is one where we do want to make a change.

    Even for some small plants that are endangered, if one looks at what people want done to preserve them, it is things like eliminate invasive species, and preserve areas, not grow them in a greenhouse (which could work).

  3. #3 Richard Carter, FCD
    February 1, 2007

    I understand there has been a lot of debate along these lines when it comes to the last remaining samples of the smallpox virus, which are now locked away in test tubes somewhere.

  4. #4 CCP
    February 1, 2007

    Markk has a good point–conserving large animals in situ requires lots of habitat, which contains all them parasites, bugs, and creepy-crawlies too. The concept is called “umbrella species” in conservation biology jargon. Lots of smart people and right-thinking organizations are grappling actively with how best to prioritize limited conservation resources. Umbrella and keystone species are one approach; another is to identify biodiversity “hotspots” that contain a maximum number of beleagured species.

    A pedantic correction: pufferfish toxin is tetrodotoxin, which blocks voltage-gated sodium channels. Alpha-bungarotoxin is derived from snake venom (kraits, genus Bungarus, of the cobra family) and blocks nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.

  5. #5 rods
    February 1, 2007

    I am totally bored by all the hoopla over pandas.

    If it were a cute beast with an acute need of human flesh to exist I don’t think people would think twice about having them vanish from the planet. I don’t suppose it would be thought of as cute either.

    Public sentiment is so over rated.

    I think I’ll go hug a tree.

  6. #6 Cameron
    February 1, 2007

    I don’t belive that it is mankind’s responsibility to save every creature from its lack of ability to adapt, even if the adaptation is necessitated by our presence. Species diversity will adapt to us, and it’s actually pretty egotistical of us to assume that nature needs a hand.

    None of that is to say that I’m against conservation efforts, just that there is no onus on us to “do” anything. We’re definitely in agreement that the current standards for preservation are misguided. But I think that the problem lies in our lack of knowledge about the direct and indirect benefits of flora and fauna, rather than an over-emphasis on emotional attachment.

    If we know that a creature is important to us medically, then we will protect it. (ex: horseshoe crab blood) If we know that a creature is vital to an ecosystem that we depend on, then we protect it. (ex: Whales) Unfortunately, we can’t tell if a creature is useful in these ways just by looking at it. It’s just not that easy. Emotional attachment, on the other hand, is. The ease of measuring attachment is the reason for the apparent over-weighting of things we feel akin to, not an error in believing them more worthy for conservation than species that confer a real advantage.

    If we’re going to change how we approach conservation efforts, I’d start by making a distinction between practical and sentimental conservation. Sentiment based conservation efforts would focus on the “Save the Fuzzy XXXX” crowd and would be actively involved in exploiting their animals appeal to raise funds for both sides. Meanwhile, practical conservation would have two fronts, one maintaining the known useful creatures and the other preserveing biodiversity by focusing on endangered species that are the most unique. All funds would be split between the two, hopefully allowing the pretty to act as poster animals for the important.

  7. #7 Shelley Batts
    February 1, 2007

    That’s a good point about the “proxy species,” as one might assume that species at the top of the food chain would be most vunerable to disruptions in the ecosystem of which they are a part. But, on the other hand, doesn’t that make them the most disposable species in that chain? If nothing is dependent upon a blue whale for survival, and all the blue whales die, you might argue that the ecosystem is no worse off for their loss. In addition, if you only pay attention to the proxy species, your attention might be misdirected to the wrong “canary in the mineshaft.” But the time snowballing disruptions make their way up to seriously depleting the populations of proxy species (who perhaps don’t contribute much to that ecosystem), the species which are the pillars of that ecosystem (and upon whom the proxies rely) might either be themselves extinct or beyond hope of saving. So in that way the bigger mammals might not be able to indicate the true health of an ecosystem.

    In that line of thought, it might be best to determine what is the backbone of survival for that ecosystem and focus on that. For example, there wouldn’t be any coral reef with the living coral which many, many species depend on. By the time that the sharks in the reef start becoming endangered from having no fish to eat (the fish have no coral to live in and reproduce), it might be way too late to save that reef.

  8. #8 Skrud
    February 1, 2007

    That reminds me of the immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobi: “The Force is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”

  9. #9 bsci
    February 1, 2007

    Read “Last Chance to See” by Douglas Adams… His only nonfiction book.
    It’s on this exact topic and it’s fun to read. He goes around the world to see some almost extinct mega fauna while pondering their value and why we should care. While not making a strong case why extintion of these specific species is horrible, he really shows the joy of observing all these animals and showing what the world will lose. I read it long enough ago that I can’t reconstruct his full argument.

  10. #10 KevinC
    February 1, 2007

    Never heard them called “umbrella species” but it is an apt term. All the classes I had called them “charismatic (mega) fauna”, choose a species that somehow has a positive response in people and use them to protect other less appealing critters. The mega is in parenthesis because in most cases the organisms that work are big.

  11. #11 RPM
    February 1, 2007

    That’s a good point about the “proxy species,” as one might assume that species at the top of the food chain would be most vunerable to disruptions in the ecosystem of which they are a part.

    I think you’re confusing the use of these umbrella or proxy species (I just cringed when I wrote that last word). It’s not that the panda or whale (or other telegenic tetrapod) is important for ecosystem survival, but that it provides a useful icon around which one can organize an effort to conserve an ecosystem (it’s policy, not science). It’s not likely that the brown muddled merpsfly will attract support, but people seem to want to preserve the dragon tiger leopard (or something equally charismatic). If you tell them that, in order to save the tiger, they must preserve the tiger’s environment, then you end up saving an ecosystem (both the habitat and the critters within). You use the useless big animals as icons to help save the important little ones.

    See here for more — because I haven’t engaged in an act of gratuitous self-promotion in a while.

  12. #12 Mark
    February 1, 2007

    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.

    The irony of that statement is that PETA is violently opposed to humans deriving any benefits of that nature from animals. Aren’t they even opposed to pet ownership?

  13. #13 Greg
    February 2, 2007

    PETA can be described as loud, assertive, obnoxious, tasteless, but not violent.

    They appear to approve of “animal companions”, but oppose abuse.

  14. #14 John Wilkins
    February 2, 2007

    Umbrella species, keystone species, and surrogate species are the related terms. But I think that it has not been shown that any of them are good markers for the viability of an ecosystem, and in fact keystone species have often been found not to be.

  15. #15 Lab Lemming
    February 2, 2007

    Have any cladists suggested ranking species based on the time since they diverged from their nearest living relative? It would be great for tuataras and ginkos, but maybe not so nice for bugs.

  16. #16 Martin R
    February 2, 2007

    I don’t think any species has a value unless it’s either important to large-scale ecology or fun to study. But then I don’t believe in timeless values at all. Here’s my take on the issue.

  17. #17 jvarisco
    February 2, 2007

    I’m not sure how important it is that the species themselves are preserved, but their genes certainly should be. For some reason they were adaptive to a given situation; who knows when that will turn out to be useful?

  18. #18 Markk
    February 2, 2007

    “Umbrella species, keystone species, and surrogate species are the related terms. But I think that it has not been shown that any of them are good markers for the viability of an ecosystem, and in fact keystone species have often been found not to be.”

    Hmm… that is not exactly what I meant, I think RPM had it closer. I was talking about a proxy – something we could talk about in place of – rather than some marker that is functionally a compression of data about the health of an ecosystem. There is some relationship in that the size of an ecosystem that must be preserved is certainly correlated somehow to the bigger species in them.

    The point being that if we are not to keep these species in zoos, totally enclosed or not, we are going to have to bring everything else along, at least until we can tease out all the relationships which is perhaps really the goal.

    In regard to top species being removable, I would send you to Aldo Leopold on that! (having just stopped at his old cabin…) I do think ecosystems, however roughly defined, are more likely the right target of conservation than species.
    For example, whether or not the Ivory Billed Woodpecker is there, unless we had kept the deep southern woods, it surely wouldn’t be.

  19. #19 CCP
    February 2, 2007

    But I think that it has not been shown that any of them are good markers for the viability of an ecosystem, and in fact keystone species have often been found not to be.

    Huh? Isn’t a keystone species, by definition, necessary for the function of a given biological community? Remove Pisaster (the original “keystone predator”) and your nice subtidal biodiversity gets reduced to all mussels all the time. Remove gopher tortoises from Gulf coastal plain uplands, they don’t dig holes, and all the many mice, frogs & bugs that depend on the holes disappear too.

    Perhaps you mean that some putative keystone species have turned out on closer examination not to be so key after all?

  20. #20 Crudely Wrott
    February 3, 2007

    As we honor, and teach our young to aspire to, creativity, productivity, diversity and unique expression, we must surely value these same qualities in the world around us. You know, the one we grew up in collectively, as a specie.

    In practical terms we cannot, without loathsome and unpopular sacrifice of comfort, “save” all the other species. In practice we can only save some. The others disappear whether by human influence or not. Again, our survival, not to mention the survival of any randomly selected specie, is simply a matter of chance.

    This is the hard part.

  21. #21 Simon M
    March 1, 2007

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