Why care about species extinctions?

By Razib Khan | September 24, 2007 3:02 pm

The New Republic has a piece titled The Greatest Dying by Jerry Coyne & Hopi E. Hoekstra (see below the fold for how to read it for free if you don’t have a TNR subscription). The piece covers the a) general parameters of the mass extinction and b) the reasons why we should care. Coyne and Hoekstra immediately start out making the humanistic utilitarian case, i.e., “How does this help humanity be healthy, wealthy and secure?” But, they proceed to add near the end:

Our arguments so far have tacitly assumed that species are worth saving only in proportion to their economic value and their effects on our quality of life, an attitude that is strongly ingrained, especially in Americans. That is why conservationists always base their case on an economic calculus. But we biologists know in our hearts that there are deeper and equally compelling reasons to worry about the loss of biodiversity: namely, simple morality and intellectual values that transcend pecuniary interests. What, for example, gives us the right to destroy other creatures? And what could be more thrilling than looking around us, seeing that we are surrounded by our evolutionary cousins, and realizing that we all got here by the same simple process of natural selection? To biologists, and potentially everyone else, apprehending the genetic kinship and common origin of all species is a spiritual experience– not necessarily religious, but spiritual nonetheless, for it stirs the soul.


There is more to life than economics, that is correct (and truly the ends of life are quite often non-economic, even if the means are not). There is for example a fair amount of literature which suggests that particular spiritual-religious traditions in South Asia are superior to others when it comes to measuring how likely indigenous peoples are to husband and conserve their local natural resources. Specifically, many forms of animism & Hinduism, which place an importance on life in the generality as opposed to simple human satisfaction often have the side effect of removing from the domain of short-term exploitation particular natural resources, which may result in a long term yield in terms of sustainability (e.g., the rate of deforestation in the hills of Maghalaya before and after Christianization among the Khasi people is one such ethnographic case study).
Nevertheless, in the generality economics tends to win in the long term, though institutional and spiritual values may change the rate of change or exploitation, it may not alter the fates because of the underlying human impulses to acquire material goods and security. And that is why I think Coyne and Hoekstra should be cautious assuming that economic arguments are salient for Americans in particular, rather, I suspect that their yield would be far greater when the audience consists of those on the margins of subsistence for whom the consumer lifestyle is a dream. One can only eat so much and consume basic goods of particularly fine quality, it is when subsistence is attained that the spiritual dimensions of nature often stand stark. A full appreciation of nature’s transcendence is often only possible on a full stomach and security that want is a forgotten memory. Is it a surprise that the first great political conservationist was the American aristocrat Teddy Roosevelt?
I do not make this point to demean the values which Coyne and Hoekstra espouse, I share them! I do though think that those values need to be framed in the context of particular social circumstances. The subjectivity of values and norms does not make them invalid, or any less important, rather, they allow one to gain perspective so as to understand the human topography of norms which one must negotiate. Jerry Coyne himself understands this implicitly, his own vigorious atheism, informed by a deep comprehension of evolutionary theory, places him in a solid minority of the human race. What to him is folly is transcendent to most. And when examined purely from a normative perspective without any consideration of economic utility one may say the same of biodiversity. A biologist may ask “but how can one not perceive the beauty and ineffable value in biological richness?” The first and immediate response I already provided, such questions lack import in the context of material want and security. But a second response is simply to flip situation and note that biologists can be lacking interest or sympathy for aesthetic grander of other kinds. Note last year the scoffing at Stephen Hawkings’ plea for off planet colonization from some ScienceBloggers. From a pragmatic perspective there are some good objections, yet I could not be help feel that they saw no art or godliness in the whole enterprise because of a disciplinary disinterest. I suspect that from the point of view of many engineers and physicists the self-evident artistry, the beauty, the cosmic ambition of the project despite the utilitarian folly, were crystal clear and seductive. Why climb Everest? Because it is there!
Humans should be cautious and humble when making arguments from aesthetic viewpoints or based on normative logic. Such values are often protean, elastic and highly subjective. Earlier this week I counseled that one should be careful about becoming overly sentimental about the death of languages when it is ultimately human well being that we aim for, that we can agree upon with little controversy. To my biologist friends I would also add that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Beauty and worth has a thousand faces, all clamoring for attention, so we should not approach the table as if our face and form shine out for special attention. Aesthetic impulses can be fickle and ephemeral, practical arguments are the ones which never lose their luster in their persuasiveness.
Reading the piece for free: There are two ways to get the TNR piece….
1) Read it via its Google Cache.
2) Or, a) sign up for an account with TNR & then sign in, click this link, and select “The Greatest Dying” (the direct link is what you need). I have no pay subscription so you shouldn’t need to shell out any $$$ for this.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution
  • jim

    You make excellent points. I find the following comment interesting:
    “A full appreciation of nature’s transcendence is often only possible on a full stomach and security that want is a forgotten memory.”
    I agree in the sense that conservationists values are more likely to be held by people and societies above a certain degree of wealth and security.
    I submit that a sentiment like a “full appreciation of nature’s transcendence” is fundamentally a religious/spiritual belief. Of the same class as, say, a *true* appreciation of Christianity or Islam or Marxism.
    I think it illustrates the nearly ingrained tendency towards spiritualism of humanity. So when an engineer sees the true Beauty of an elegant design, or a conservationist sees the full Transcendence of Nature, what’s really happening is the brain is redirecting our in-built spiritualism (and supernaturalism) machinery.
    In other words, I don’t believe there is any such thing as full transcendence of nature, or true beauty of X … anymore than there are real gods or karmic forces guiding our lives.
    The fact that almost every specialist finds true underlying Beauty in their field … reveals more about the structure of our minds than the structure of the world.
    We are built to experience moments of Transcendence. Many (most?) people experience their first love as being especially Transcendent. But we don’t really believe (since it’s impossible) that millions of couples the world over possess the one true great love. It feels that way to the individual, but it doesn’t make it real.
    We wistfully shake our heads at the teenager who claims a true love like none before in history. We know they will grow out of it. The similarly romantic claims of environmentalists, engineers, artists, scientists, etc are, I believe, fundamentally the same.
    This experience of Beauty and Transcendence is a great motivator to humanity, and I’m far from immune to it. Sadly, I see little evidence that it’s true in any objective sense.
    One person sees the touch of the Divine, another sees True Art, another sees the Transcendence of Nature. I think it’s just different terms for a natural, evolved, psychological experience common to humanity — which says more about our mental models of the world than the world itself.
    Thanks for the enjoyable, thought-provoking, post.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    This experience of Beauty and Transcendence is a great motivator to humanity, and I’m far from immune to it….
    i think there is a basal extent of “biophilia” in our species. that being said, that tendency is pretty asked at lower subsistence levels, or when you perceive that you are in a state of want….

  • http://scienceblogs.com/evolgen RPM

    What’s the dilly with Coyne and Hoekstra publishing stuff together? Was Hopi on the desk?

  • jeffk

    I more or less agree. The question, then, is how much right do those of us who are not wanting have to use our resources to save species? Are we allowed, with our full stomachs and such, to even make the decision?
    I guess it’s the same question I ask when I think about my cosmology research being funded when people are hungry. How do you put a price on those things? But then, considering the amount that Americans waste outright on crap, it’s hard to feel bad.

  • John Emerson

    Humans should be cautious and humble when making arguments from aesthetic viewpoints or based on normative logic.
    Economics is normative. That’s a tremendously neglected and very important point. It’s a fixed normativity which is assumed to be abviously true.
    “A full appreciation of nature’s transcendence is often only possible on a full stomach and security that want is a forgotten memory.
    Not really true. Many desperately poor peoples (e.g. Tibetans) do have a feeling for this. (This doesn’t mean that they’re vegetarian hippies, BTW. They’re absolutley not).
    In general, arguments from the most extreme poverty can be used to justify any destruction. “Who are you to be …..ing when people are starving? Who are you to judge a starving man if he …..” etc.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Economics is normative. That’s a tremendously neglected and very important point. It’s a fixed normativity which is assumed to be abviously true.
    economic norms are more universal than aesthetic ones. on the first order people tend to particular psychological preferences for goods and services. once the basal subsistence needs are satisfied it gets more complicated as you people generate wants and also get into the status signaling race. to use an analogy, saying that murder is wrong is normative is correct, but it’s a norm that is pretty universal, probably at least with some bio-psychological grounding.
    Not really true. Many desperately poor peoples (e.g. Tibetans) do have a feeling for this. (This doesn’t mean that they’re vegetarian hippies, BTW. They’re absolutley not).
    well, i noted above that biophilia is pretty universal. and some of the difference is institutional (e.g., if the mountain is your god, you’re going to revere mountains in a non-economic way). that being said, i will stand by my assertion that appreciation for nature and other aesthetic elements would track socioeconomic status within a culture. that is, the economically marginal will tend to focus less on this because they’ve got to allocate their attention to survival by any means necessary.

  • Caledonian

    to use an analogy, saying that murder is wrong is normative is correct, but it’s a norm that is pretty universal

    But the definition of ‘murder’ isn’t.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    But the definition of ‘murder’ isn’t.
    granted. but luckily for me basic subsistence re: caloric intake has less elastic boundaries.

  • John Emerson

    You’re confusing two meanings of “economics”. Economics was influenced by utilitarianism early on, and some economists would contrast “basic needs” to luxury goods or secondary needs. This is what someone is doing when they talk about “basic economic needs” vs. “high culture”, and so on.
    But economists haven’t thought that way for maybe a century. They deal in production, consumption, and exchanges of commodities of a given dollar value, and in economics a $10 cigar has the same value as $10 worth of penicillin. “Cultural values” are brought back into play as consumption choices within the hierarchy of wealth, and “basic economic needs” may or may not be satisfied throughout the society.
    Marxist economists and some other European economists distinguish “use value” and “exchange value”, but very few non-Marxist economists do.
    People can argue about what the implicit normativity of economics is. Individual freedom of choice is one possibility (accepted by many mainstream economists) and maximization of production and capital-accumulation is another. Most economists claim that “basic economic needs” are best fulfilled in such an economy, and that is true in a broad historical sense, but it’s somewhat of a spinoff. Satisfying everyone’s basic economic needs isn’t a primary economic goal, and as the capitalist economy globalizes extremes of wealth and poverty might remain or even increase.

  • John Emerson

    Amartya Sen (“Rationality and Freedom”) has been trying to reintroduce something like “basic human needs” into economics after at least 70 years without them, but he’s explicitly making economics more normative. He also defines freedom for all as a basic value, beyond just subsistence — it sounds a little as though he’s trying to resurrect “positive freedom”, which has also been excluded from a lot of Western social thinking over the last several decades.

  • http://www.rishon-rishon.com David Boxenhorn

    John,
    There still are non-economic goods, and biodiversity is one of them. Non-economic goods are those the can’t be exchanged.

  • http://www.rishon-rishon.com David Boxenhorn

    BTW, I disagree with this:
    And, unlike with previous extinctions, there’s no hope that biodiversity will ever recover, since the cause of the decimation–us–is here to stay.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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