The Value of Biodiversity

Occasioned by a comment on my recent entry on the movie Avatar and the Gaia hypothesis, here's a re-run of a blog entry from March 2006.

As comments to a recent entry, I've had an interesting discussion about environmentalism with a friend. We both agree that biodiversity and ecological systems should be preserved. But we disagree as to the reason for this.

If I understand my friend correctly, her opinion is that we should preserve biodiversity because it is precious (or even holy?) without reference to the needs and wishes of humans. Let's say she feels biodiversity is an abstract good.

My opinion is that there is no such thing as abstract good. My reason for thinking we should preserve biodiversity is that it would be dangerous and aesthetically dissatisfying for humans if we lost it. I believe that the concept of value is only at all applicable from the perspective of an intelligent observer.

Consider the planet Octavia, far, far away. It sported a radiant ecosystem with innumerable species of exquisite beauty -- until yesterday. A nearby star and the local black hole bumped uglies, producing an extended shower of hard radiation, killing every living thing on Octavia as the planet rotated. The planet now has innumerable fossils of exquisite beauty. And in a few years, Octavia's entire star system will be swallowed by the black hole, obliterating it.

Now, is this a tragedy? No. It's a non-event. Let me add two crucial pieces of information.

1) The smartest being that ever evolved on vibrant Octavia was a blue armadillo-like creature with the brains of a fish. And it didn't suffer one bit when the radiation hit it.

2) No intelligent being from another star system ever came close enough to Octavia to even notice that it had life.

Or consider a species of yellow toad restricted to a single valley in Papua New Guinea. Its habitat is severely threatened by logging, and chances are it'll be extinct in a few years. The passing of this rare toad species is of no practical concern to humans, and the locals won't miss it. But people in the West, like me, will mourn the toad. Not because it had any intrinsic value, but because it was a fun animal to study.

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I mostly agree with your reasoning, but think you're a bit cavalier in how you view biology. It's not just that the toad "was a fun animal to study." There is a possibility that we could have learned something important from that toad. Something important about us. Something important about life beyond toads. And extinction is, so far, permanent. The maintenance of species libraries -- that preserve DNA and samples of species that might disappear -- is an attempt to ameliorate that loss.

I would suggest that the toads have a right to exist above and beyond our amusement. Who are we to say toads have no intrinsic value? It might well be argued from an alien point of view that humans have a negative total effect on the ecosystem, and hence should be valued even less.

Personally, I think it's a damned shame Octavia got swallowed up - now we will never have a chance to study it.

By Akhôrahil (not verified) on 03 Feb 2010 #permalink

By that reasoning it would also have been a non event if the K-T asteroid impact had wiped out all life on earth giving a dead planet.

Also if some technologically advanced civilization - perhaps us in future years came across a planet with non intelligent (by our standards) animal life and destroyed it - that would be a non event.

Is that your position?

Ah, but that yellow New Guinea toad contained a whole cocktail of chemical defenses in its skin -- one of which would have stopped HIV dead in its tracks. It was complex enough that humans would never have hit upon it in a century in the lab, but it could have been synthesized from cheap precursors for pennies per dose, and might have saved humanity an immense amount of suffering. . .

Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows? But if that toad does go extinct, we'll never know what practical benefits might have accrued from studying it. There are plenty of examples of drugs, from aspirin to anticancer agents (bryostatin, paclitaxel) and analgesics (ziconotide), ultimately derived from animals and plants.

Or maybe the toad contains nothing of value -- but its feces are the only habitat for a unique fungus, which secretes a safe and powerful antibiotic. Or the toad is a major food source for a bat that also feeds on disease-carrying insects. Or the toad is a major food source for a local fish that is in turn eaten by a bird of prey that also feeds on rodent pests of the local cash crops. . .

I think my point is that there's no such thing as an intelligent observer that is free of the web of biodiversity -- it's not possible for us to truly stand outside biodiversity and judge it with regard to our own needs and wants; we're part of it, so tightly woven into it that the difference between "our own needs" and "an abstract good" breaks down completely.

That's my two öre, anyway.

I think you're absolutely right, Martin, that belief (because that's what it is) in an abstract good is dangerously close to religion: the holding of a paramount concept that is universally applicable but ultimately unprovable and unknowable by testable means. That's what you really meant by your snarky "holy" reference, isn't it? Most of the arguments raised against your position are based on unprovable what-if scenarios. I think it's ok to say that biodiversity is aesthetically pleasing to many post-modern western intellects and recognize its advocates as the cultural apostles they are.

Man may be the measure of all things, but placing man's intelligent reasoning at the center of the universe doesn't adequately acknowledge its many-times-proven fallability at any given point in time -- science is always being refined. So it runs up against the paradox I think Pope described best:

Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Russell, I don't think "important" is a very illuminating classification. Info about the toad might be fun, it might be useful (but I doubt it), and it might be completely banal except in a toad-centric perspective. And such a perspective is OK with me. I study Scandinavian prehistory for a living, you know.

Codero, I disagree. Values exist only in the eye of intelligent beings. They have no independent reality. Toads have no rights. The local people do.

Tim, yes, once you're dead you no longer have any problems. But somebody else who landed here afterwards might mourn the Earth's ecosphere. (Which would survive pretty much any interplanetary strike, BTW.) And of course it would be a major crime for another intelligent being to kill us all. Murder is the same regardless of your planetary origins.

Ben, as I said, I'd mourn the toad regardless.

Kevin, holiness is in the eye of the beholder. Just ask a few citizens of India with different faiths how they feel about cows.

The reason that certain cultures hold that the life of a child is sacred, for instance, is that their members have agreed to believe this. I certainly do.

Oh I'm not disagreeing with you at all, Martin, just pointing out that the intelligent observer perspective on the world has a paradox at its heart, one I'm quite comfortable with. Intelligent observation is all we've got to go on. I just think the historical fallability of intelligent observers might make me think twice if given the chance to, say, swat the last mosquito on earth.

Yeah, I don't believe that just because a being's sentient and intelligent, it is omniscient and wise.

Beautifully put! I'd argue that it's in this gap (gulf?) between what is possible to be known as an intelligent-but-fallible observer and an omniscient and wise being that abstract values have their place. Passing judgment on the demise of your planet or your frog would be the province of an omniscient being if one existed. Your scenarios work only because you stipulated all the elements -- you are the omniscient observer. Absent this luxury, the holding of abstract values based on a best guess of what an omniscient being would value is the best we can do, and is not at all inconsistent with a scientific skepticism that has the same intellectual humility at its heart.

I find Martin's anthropocentric perspective and reliance on human intelligence (whatever that really is) uncomfortably reminiscent of the old testament (Genesis 1:28).
It is common knowledge that evolution knows no goal, but it does not follow that we should therefore mess with it however we please, being the only ones who have self-conferred "rights". We may not ultimately be able to fix absolute values, but it may be advisable to give those hypothetical toads the benefit of the doubt. As Gandalf says, "Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them?"

I don't think that's fair.

I'm sure Martin would grant equal value to other feeling, intelligent, reflective (but non-human) entities. The difference is between who counts as a moral object, and who doesn't. He's not out to kill innocent animal life on principle; he just doesn't ascribe it intrinsic value.

By Akhôrahil (not verified) on 04 Feb 2010 #permalink

As I said in the entry, to me the only good reason to preserve biodiversity is a selfish one, seen from the perspective of intelligent beings. Not just humans.

I also believe that it is morally OK to kill animals as long as it serves an important human purpose and suffering is kept to a minimum. This makes me a supporter of Swedish elk hunting and an opponent of animal-tested cosmetics.

Is that the crux of it then? How much should we value life and at what level? Taken further, does the level that we value life influence the meaning we find in our own? Continuing this line of thought will render an ultimate answer of 42. Of course you have to supply the question...

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 04 Feb 2010 #permalink

I have a hypothesis that fresh passenger pigeon blood would cure cancer. Unfortunately this is not a scientific hypothesis because it is not testable. I think all cosmetics are tested on dumb animals, many of them human females. Our real problem is that we know our planet so poorly that we cannot do a cost/benefit study of something like building a reservoir, or logging a valley, with out throwing in a lot of ignorance.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 04 Feb 2010 #permalink