Fighting against species extinction is to deny evolution

I was reading an article today about the threat of extinction for leather-backed turtles and once again I started wondering as to why extinction of a species or a language or of an isolated tribe arouses moral outrage or is an emotional matter for so many people. I don’t want these turtles to become extinct just as I don’t want tigers or polar bears or pandas to become extinct. But this is purely an emotional reaction because each of these animals is attractive – to my human eye – in its own right. Outside of TV documentaries, zoos and safari parks I have never seen any of them. I don’t have the same reaction when I read that guinea worms or disease-carrying species of mosquitoes are being eradicated. “Good riddance” is then the predominating feeling that I have. Yet whether a mammal or a bacterium becomes extinct the genetic loss is about the same. That dinosaurs became extinct millions of years ago or even that humans killed off the dodo or the thylacine or the Javan tiger in more recent times arouses some feelings of regret but not any moral outrage or much emotional response from me. The article about the turtles – like most other articles about the extinction of species  – is permeated with the politically correct assumption that extinction would be a “bad thing”. But I never see properly addressed the question as to why the extinction of a species is a “bad thing”.

This is essentially a value-judgement and is taken for granted and yet – in the rational plane – I can only conclude that there is nothing “unnatural” about this. In fact it is this emotional desire that species considered “attractive” should not become extinct when their time is due that is irrational. Normal or natural evolution is always a result of change. It is the result of species responding to change where the individuals of a species most suited to the changed circumstances continue and reproduce. Where the variety existing within a species is insufficient to provide any individuals who can survive and reproduce in the changed environment, the species dies out. It is said that about 90% of all species that have ever lived have become extinct. If they had not there would be no room for the 10% that exist today. Just as homo sapiens would never have evolved without the environmental changes which led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, most of the species alive today would not have succeeded their extinct ancestors if conditions had not led to their extinction. Where a species cannot compete with another – in whatever the prevailing circumstances – it dies out. It makes room for the more successful species.

Siberian Tiger Français : Tigre de sibérie Ita...

Siberian Tiger Français : (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what then is the objection to – say – tigers becoming extinct which is not just an emotional reaction to the disappearance of a magnificent but anachronistic creature?  The bio-diversity argument is not very convincing and is of little relevance. To artificially keep an unsuccessful species alive in a specially protected environment has no genetic value. It increases the mis-match between the existing environment and the genetic profile needed to survive in that environment. In fact the biodiversity argument is only relevant for “life” in general and never for any particular species or group of species.  It can serve to maintain a very wide range of genetic material in the event of a catastrophe such that some form of life has a chance of continuing. But given a particular environment biodiversity in itself is of little value.

Returning to the tiger as an example, the variety of individuals within the tiger population does not provide any which have the characteristics necessary for adapting to the reality of co-existing with humans in some form of urban living. Foxes, on the other hand, are evolving within our lifetimes. In a few more fox generations, urban foxes will out-compete their “wild” cousins who may well become extinct. But urban foxes will thrive. Many bird species and insects are throwing up the individuals to succeed in the shadow of the success of the human species. Bacteria and no doubt viruses are also throwing up their survivors. Some bacteria are changing faster than we would like. The polar bears who visit Churchill every year are evolving. Those who know how to forage in human communities have a distinct advantage over their less intelligent brethren. And of those who visit Churchill it is the ones who avoid attacking humans which have the best chance of surviving. (Polar bears are of course thriving and are in no danger of extinction – but that is another story). Langur and rhesus monkey troops in Delhi are in the process of becoming urbanised and “evolving” to succeed in their human-filled environment. These species are not domesticated. They are still wild but they are evolving – by selection – into new species suited to their new environment.

All those species which succeed into the future will be those which continue to “evolve” and have the characteristics necessary to thrive within the world as it is being shaped and changed by the most successful species that ever lived (though we cannot be sure how far some particular species of dinosaur may have advanced). Putting a tiger into a zoo or a “protected” environment actually only preserves the tiger in an “unsuccessful” form in an artificial environment. Does this really count as “saving the species”? We might be of more use to the future of the tiger species if we intentionally bred them to find a new space in a changed world  – perhaps as urban tigers which can co-exist with man.

If a polar bear were to hunt and kill a seal – even if it was the last individual of a seal species – it could be a matter of some regret but it would not generate any moral outrage. And then if the polar bears did not themselves adapt to find alternative food sources – then they too would fail to survive. The loss of a species can always be a matter of some regret but so is the death of any individual. Both are equally inevitable but the regret is mitigated by what comes after.

The thought occurs to me that while there is no doubt that human activity is altering the environment for many species, it is of little benefit to try and deny evolution. Species protection must consist of helping “threatened species”  to evolve and not in standing-still in some artificial environment.

Perhaps the answer is – for example – to breed and train a new species of Siberian tiger to manage vast reindeer herds where they could also be allowed to hunt and devour a few!

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