4th December 2017 | Dave Bookless | 2 comments

Should we save endangered species?

In a recent article in The Washington Post, biology professor R. Alexander Pyron argues that ‘The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings.’ He attacks the resources poured into saving species from extinction, accepting that up to 40% of species may soon disappear through human action, but countering that ‘both the planet and humanity can probably survive or even thrive in a world with fewer species.’

Togo Slippery Frog Conraua derooi, a Critically Endangered species from the Atewa Range in Ghana. © Photo by Dr Jeremy Lindsell, Director of Science and Conservation, A Rocha International.

Togo Slippery Frog Conraua derooi, a Critically Endangered species from the Atewa Range in Ghana. © Photo by Dr Jeremy Lindsell / A Rocha International.

Pyron is not alone. His views are within a spectrum variously titled ‘the new conservation’[1] and ‘ecomodernism’,[2] which use apparently scientific and humanitarian language to assert that, because extinction is an inevitable part of evolutionary progress we should not be worried by it, and that humanity can re-engineer nature to create a ‘good anthropocene’ – a world serving the needs of all people without regard to biological integrity. There are many reasons why this approach is profoundly misled, and they largely fall into two categories: scientific and economic evidence, and philosophical confusion.

In terms of science, there is overwhelming evidence that rapid extinction of species leads to ecosystem collapse. Michael Soulé writes, ‘The best current research is solidly supportive of the connection between species diversity and the stability of ecosystems.’[3] If we want stable, productive ecosystems we need genetic and species diversity. The fact that some extinctions have always occurred is a dangerous irrelevancy. Today’s extinction rate is variously assessed at between 100 and 10,000 times faster than the underlying rate,[4,5] is too rapid for evolutionary replacement through speciation to assist, and is not natural but caused by the unprecedented impact of one species upon all others.[6] Through our careless drive towards mass extinction we are merrily lopping branches off the tree of life on which we ourselves sit, as agriculture and fisheries collapse, ecosystem services become unstable and decimated, and as yet unknown medicinal opportunities are lost.

Similarly, those who think that by introducing or even modifying a few ‘helpful’ alien plant and animal species we can re-engineer ecosystems are, in E. O. Wilson’s memorable phrase, playing ‘the ecological equivalent of Russian roulette’[7] – the risks are huge and the consequences might be lethal.

Likewise, the assertion that rapid economic growth will lift people out of mundane concerns and engender love for whatever biodiversity remains, is both absurd and against all the evidence. Growth in consumption has continued unabated even in affluent societies, and is the largest driver of climate change, habitat loss, and ultimately of biodiversity loss.[8,9]

However, alongside Pyron and others’ faulty science and economics, lie their hidden and questionable philosophical assumptions. ‘New conservation’ and ‘Ecomodernism’ proclaim an extreme anthropocentrism[10] following in the footsteps of Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who wrote of ‘my only earthly wish, namely to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds.’[11] Whilst Bacon believed in God, he relegated him to an otherworldly spiritual domain, and opened the door to the secular objectification of nature, making it a mere object for humans to exploit.

At the heart of Bacon, Pyron and others is a belief that humanity is firstly the sole species that matters, and secondly possesses not only the creative technological capacity but also the moral will to solve all of its own problems. This is a faith-based standpoint, rooted in neither science or logic. It is the neo-religious myth of human progress, a myth that is deeply complicit in the unsustainable economic and ecological disasters that are rapidly overwhelming the planet.

There is a deep irony here, because Christianity has often been accused of fostering a worldview based on human exceptionalism,[12] whilst today it is secular techno-optimists who propound this view most forcibly, whereas many Christians are at last recovering a biblical understanding of the human role as one of humility and service. The Papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, affirms that species ‘have value in themselves’ and ‘give glory to God by their very existence’,[13] and goes on to give clear grounds for conserving endangered species: ‘Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another’.[14]

Pope Francis expresses anew the biblical recognition that God ‘has compassion on all that he has made’,[15] that humans created in God’s image should reflect God’s generous character towards fellow creatures. God’s creative delight in all he had made as ‘very good’,[16] and his command to Noah to include representatives of every species simply ‘to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth’[17] demonstrate God’s love of biodiversity. In the face of the idolatrous anthropocentrism of the ‘new conservation’, and of humanity silencing the praise of creatures made to voice God’s glory, perhaps commitment to conserving endangered species should be considered an acid test of biblical obedience.

Footnotes:

[1] Soulé , M. E. (2013). The “New Conservation”. Conservation Biology 27(5): 895-897. Link to editorial article
[2] http://www.ecomodernism.org/
[3] Soulé, (2013). p. 896
[4] Center for Biological Diversity, The extinction crisis.
[5] Smith, F. D. M., et al. (1993). “How much do we know about the current extinction rate?” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 8(10): 375-378.
[6] Barnosky, A. D., et al. (2011). “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?” Nature (471): 51-57. Link to review
[7] Wilson, E. O. (2016). Half-Earth: Our planet’s fight for life. New York, London: Liveright. p. 36
[8] Worldwatch Institute: The State of Consumption Today.
[9] WWF: What are the major reasons why we are losing so much biodiversity?
[10] The view that humans should use the world purely to serve their own interests.
[11] Bacon, F. (1966). The Masculine Birth of Time. The Philosophy of Francis Bacon. B. Farrington. Chicago, Chicago University Press.
[12] White Jr., L. (1967). “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155(3767): 1203-1207.
[13] Pope Francis (2015). Laudato Si’ – On the Care of our Common Home. Holy See. Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Link to online text
[14] Pope Francis, ibid. para. 42.
[15] Psalm 145:9
[16] Genesis 1:31
[17] Genesis 7:3b

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Categories: Questions
About Dave Bookless

Dave has worked with A Rocha since 1997, first as an International Trustee, then from 2001 with A Rocha UK as co-founder (with his wife Anne), National Director, and then Director for Theology, Churches & Sustainable Communities. He joined the A Rocha International team in September 2011. His role as Advisor for Theology and Churches includes providing advice and resources for ARI’s Trustees, Team and national A Rocha organisations, and coordinating liaison with international theological and mission networks and organisations. He is also studying for a part-time PhD at Cambridge University on biblical theology and biodiversity conservation.

View all posts by Dave Bookless

2 responses to “Should we save endangered species?”

  1. Dave Bookless says:

    Since publishing this blog, we’ve discovered that the author of the Washington Post article, Professor R. A. Pyron, has published a retraction of some of the key comments attributed to him: http://www.colubroid.org. We welcome this! However, as the blog addresses not only one article but a wider debate around anthropocentric views and biodiversity conservation, its arguments are still important and relevant.

    • Júlio Reis says:

      I’ve now read Dr Pyron’s retraction. It seems to hit the same marks as his original article. One sentence reads,

      ‘There will likely come a day when there are no longer humans on earth, during this decline the remaining biodiversity will likely blossom again as it has done repeatedly through time. Then, there will likely be a Seventh Extinction, an Eighth, a Ninth. This is a powerful perspective, and one that contextualizes the drastic need for short-term conservation efforts.’

      The above quote has at least three problems:

      1. The future extinction of humans is a faith-based assumption; many people believe this, it’s just not scientifically verifiable. My own faith-based assumption is that God will avert the total destruction of humans, and also bring them to judgment for their destruction of the earth and fellow man.

      2. The continuation of life after humans go extinct is also faith-based – and if like Dr Pyron says, ‘conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt’ then I’d argue that the same can be said for shrugging off human-caused extinctions with, ‘oh well, something will evolve afterwards’.

      3. Dr Pyron attempts to make the Sixth Extinction similar to any past (and hypothetical future) extinctions. I’d posit that the Sixth is being brought about by a sentient species, and so until someone finds evidence of intelligence behind the previous extinctions, I’ll hold on to the idea that the Sixth is radically different.

      More could be said, but anyway, to me his position did not change, and yes, this blog is important and relevant.

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