Why care about species extinctions?

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.

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