Friday, February 27, 2015

The Great Chain of Being is still relevant today and not for the right reasons

The Great Chain of Being, also known as scala naturae, is a concept that was derived from the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. It's the idea that there is an inherent hierarchy of nature with a perfect god at the top, angels right below god, kings below the angels, and animals, birds, worms and then rocks at the very bottom with much in between the kings and the animals. Birds are lower than animals and worms are lower than birds. This method of ranking living and nonliving things classifies them based on perfection with each step down becoming gradually less ideal.

Select portion of Haeckel's Evolution of Man
With a perfect god at the top, this system obviously has religious roots, but it was how naturalists and biologists thought too. The idea has changed over time and eventually living things were grouped based on their anatomy as opposed to this system based on perfection and closeness to a god. It sounds like an archaic way of thinking, yet the idea that some species are higher than others pervades our thinking to this day. Many people believe humans are better or above other animals, that we deserve all of the resources we consume regardless of other species' needs, and even that we deserve these resources because we're more intelligent. We drastically change the landscape and ecology of the planet, building dams, spraying pesticides, logging forests, and so forth, because we believe we're making the world a better place to live in (for humans).

Learning more about wildlife and seeing animals in action, whether it's in a zoo or the wild, is the easiest way I can think of removing these biases. By learning that chimpanzees appear to mourn for their dead, we realize we're not so different. Going on a whale watch and seeing humpback whales with your own eyes is hard to forget and makes these aquatic giants seem more than just another species we need to protect. Learning that the aye-aye's creepy pointed finger has a unique and important function helps us understand that this weird primate is worth saving despite its oddities. Reading about animal intelligence and understanding the tremendous diversity of adaptations animals have to their environments makes it clear that there are multiple ways of measuring importance and worth of a species. One species isn't better than another but each species is different and has its own value. Just because an ant doesn't create art doesn't mean that we should ignore them. Ants wage wars, they are one of the strongest animals in relation to their size, some ants can swim, and some can reproduce asexually. They're more than just an annoyance at a picnic and they're a lot of things we're not. Who are we to judge if they're "better"? Ants aren't humans and humans aren't ants. Different doesn't mean we need to undervalue them.

Monteseny brook newt
Many people also believe that certain animals (usually the photogenic or cute and cuddly ones) are worth protecting over others. This too is similar to the idea that some animals are higher than others. Humans will gladly donate to save the endangered giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) but saving the critically endangered Montseny brook newt (Calotriton arnoldi) is a lot harder. One species is cute and cuddly and widely recognized and loved whereas the other is unknown to most people. The World Wildlife Foundation uses the giant panda as its symbol or logo. Should the Montseny brook newt remain unknown and ignored because it isn't as cuddly as the panda? Do we really want to base our conservation priorities on which animal takes the best photos and sells the most stuffed animals? Probably not but that's often what happens.

How do we make newts, frogs, insects, snakes, spiders, and other animals more attractive compared to pandas, tigers, orcas, and gorillas? Well, I'm not sure we can. Pandas look good on tee-shirts and there are more tv and movie documentaries on pandas than on newts. Our best bet is likely educating people about how important those less desirable animals are to our world and how interesting they really are. (To learn more about the Montseny brook newt, click here.) This may be one instance where it makes sense to spend more time educating adults than it does children. I'd hope adults are more susceptible to listening to the facts rather than basing their donations and interest solely on the charisma of an animal, but who's to say?

Drumming up support for local species is also a good idea. You're more likely to protect a species that you see in your own neighborhood than one that you'll probably never see because it's on another continent far away. Take for example the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). This is not a cute species, yet it has rebounded from only a few individuals living in the wild to more than four hundred due to captive breeding programs initiated by the US government. Protecting condors started out as a government initiative, but condors have found their way into our hearts (or at least found their way onto our radar) despite having bald heads and feathers. You can easily donate online to help reintroduction efforts.

The Great Chain of Being should be a concept that pops up only when we're discussing history. Instead, it permeates our ideas about the value of conserving wildlife. This is an outdated idea that doesn't make sense given all we know about the animal kingdom. Gorillas are not higher than rodents and protecting them based on this idea is misguided and outdated. Let's move on from scala naturae and protect species based on other characteristics.

Food for thought: What makes a species worth protecting? How should we judge which species deserve our attention?

Links of interest:
Valuation of species and nature conservation in Asia and Oceania
Science Video: Why do we value some species more than others?
Ethics for Wildlife Conservation: Overcoming the Human-Nature Dualism
TED Talk on bringing the condor back from near extinction

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