Nature, Cruel and Uncaring

At the beginning of chapter one of The Resilient Earth, we opened with a quote from Meg Urry: “Nature is what it is.” It seems that this statement has troubled one of our readers, who has written us criticizing our “total disdain for species.” While Professor Urry's statement was not specifically referring to the inevitable extinction of all species, that is a scientific truth that we put forth in the book. It seems that this nugget of scientific knowledge doesn't set well with the green crowd.

The quotation from Dr. Urry, chair of the Physics Department at Yale University, was about the nature of science and the role that scientists play. Our reader—let's refer to him as Mr. Foot (not his real name)—misinterpreted the quot, narrowing the meaning to a "callous disregard for the value of living species." This shows how some people stop listening when they encounter discourse they object to. The quote in its entirety is as follows:

“Scientists observe nature, then develop theories that describe their observations. Science is driven by nature itself, and nature gives us no choice. It is what it is.”

What this elegant and concise statement says is that scientists don't have the luxury of opinion or guesswork when it comes to their profession. They must accept the natural world on its terms, not theirs. As my co-author, Al, often says: “You don't get a bunch of physicists together and take a vote on the speed of light.” Mr. Foot did not truly understand the quote and possibly missed the meaning of the entire book.

Among the things that Mr. Foot did like about TRE was that it was not full of political labels, no “Democrat, Republican and Libertarian.” In truth, we never consciously thought about our subject matter in political terms. From our point of view no political party has a lock on bad ideas or a corner on the stupidity market. He also praised our support for hybrid vehicles and our staunch opposition to the use of coal, both positions that I have expanded on in this blog (see “Plugging In To Hybrid Happiness” and “The Cost Of Coal”). Where we and Foot part company is on the subject of extinction.

We cited scientists from the Smithsonian Institution Department of Paleo-biology in our discussion of mass extinctions and the demise of species. The quotation that Mr. Foot should have cited in his objection is the following:

“Extinction is the complete demise of a species. It takes place when all individuals of a species die out. Extinction has occurred throughout the history of life on Earth. It is the ultimate fate of all species. In fact, it has been estimated that 99.9% of all species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct.”

This is a simple statement of scientific fact, backed by direct evidence in the fossil record and observed by myriad archeologists and paleontologists. True, the statement that “nature is what it is” could be translated as supporting the statement that the “ultimate fate” of all species is extinction—a fairly sobering and scary thought. One of nature's dirty little secrets is that every 100 million years or so a major extinction event wipes out all life on this planet larger than a house cat. Life then puts forth another crop of even more diverse species to take the places of the newly extinct. That does not change the accuracy of the statement one bit—in the long run we are all doomed.

Why should this observation regarding the workings of nature be so upsetting to a nature lover like Mr. Foot? Perhaps it is because most self proclaimed ecologically conscious people have only a foggy idea of the way nature works. Often ignorant of the long and sanguine history of life on Earth, they have arrived at a heart felt, but wholly unreasoned belief that all species are infinity valuable and should be preserved at any cost.

We have seen this irrational reaction with the snail darter, the spotted owl and, most recently, the salt march harvest mouse. The $787 billion economic stimulus bill recently passed by the US Congress includes $30 million for wetlands restoration that the Obama administration intends to spend in the San Francisco Bay Area to protect, among other things, the endangered mouse. While restoring wetlands is an admirable pursuit, in these times of economic distress are there not more pressing matters to spend the people's money on? Of course the green lobby would say no.

At the heart of this reflexive need to preserve the existence of any species, no matter how insignificant, is a quasi-religious belief in the goodness of nature and the inherent evil of mankind. When Dr. James Lovelock first put forth the Gaia hypothesis, which considers the planet Earth as a self-regulated living being, he was not planing on creating a new religion. Unfortunately, the Gaia of Lovelock's theory has been transformed by new age mystics into an earth goddess that is worshiped by many environmentalists. Strange that many who consider themselves so modern and sophisticated—who deride traditional religious belief—have fallen into a form of neo-paganism that is more befitting the stone age than the atomic age.

Just as an aside, Lovelock, who's green credentials are beyond dispute, has become a supporter of expanding nuclear power to help reduce fossil fuel use. To quote from his official website: “With fossil fuels currently the dominant source of energy, he sees a large-scale switch to nuclear power as vital if electricity supplies are to continue reliably and carbon dioxide emissions are to be brought down.” But back to the matter at hand.

To clarify what science says about species extinction, including our own, let me cite the words of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould: “Nature is amoral, not immoral... [It] existed for eons before we arrived, didn't know we were coming, and doesn't give a damn about us.” What the earth mother worshiping, tree-hugging, save all species at any cost crowd doesn't understand is that nature is not a sentient being. It doesn't value any individual creature, or any species, because it can't. Nature is just a collection of physical processes interacting with Earth's biota and one day Nature will end us all.

If nature doesn't give a damn about any living species why should we? We can approach this from a strictly self centered point of view and say that we need other species to keep the biosphere liveable. Or we can focus on other possible uses of Earth's living plants and animals. As we said in TRE:

“Despite the impressive advances of science we are unable to bring back a single vanished species. When a species becomes extinct all the knowledge we might have gained from studying it, all the pleasure of observing it, is also gone forever. The genetic code of each life-form, its genome, contains a treasure house of information. New drugs, cures for disease, and unique evolutionary insights can all be lost. We should be very careful when dealing with such living treasure.”

We can be more specific and say some critters are quite tasty when properly prepared—as I have often said, if you want to save a species from extinction put it on the menu. There is no shortage of cattle, sheep, goats or chickens. So what about creatures we don't eat, creatures that, given half a chance would eat us? Are there rational reasons to keep them around?

Preserving the environment is a good thing, but it is a good thing because clean air is better to breathe, clean water better to drink, sweeping natural vistas more pleasing to look at, and beaches uncluttered by trash nicer to swim at. There is nothing wrong with valuing a creature simply because we find it nice to look at. Giraffes are whimsical, elephants stately, lions regal and pandas cuddly looking. There is nothing out of the ordinary in wanting to preserve things that give us pleasure, we spend billions on movie DVDs and recorded music every year. But let's be honest about why we value other species.

Species will go extinct and we should not always intervene blindly, out of misplaced passion for nature. Demanding we save every species out of quasi-religious superstition and nature worship is irrational. Rather, we should act rationally and with our own interests at heart, remembering that the only value attached to any species is the value we assign. Nature herself remains totally impartial. To quote again from the late Professor Gould: “Nature betrays no statistical preference for being either warm and fuzzy, or ugly and disgusting. Nature just is—in all her complexity and diversity, in all her sublime indifference to our desires.”

Only three entities can

Only three entities can ordain a 'right': God, man, and nature. Your God may differ, but the Judeo-Christian God gave man control over the animal kingdom, but gave no rights to animals.

Mike Tuiolio

It's a start

We all need to do our part to protect the environment every day of the year. Not just one. That could mean to recycle more or drive less. I'm not one of these naturists or environmentalists but I still thinks it's important. Otherwise in a hundred years time our great great grandchildren will probably live underwater. And then in thousands of years time humans will turn back into fish and get eaten by sharks :-).

Caralluma

Arbor Day - Education

I have been a teacher for about 4 years now, i took it upon myself to try and make some changes at the school I work at. I teach 18 year olds +, and not one of them new about Arbor Day, I was shocked. The head of our School increased our budget for a school trip, I decided to come up with a plan to take the Students on a Safari. It was clear how quickly they reacted to the environment and how much their views on the environment had changed when they got back. Interaction with the environment is a quick clear and simple way to get people to want to know more.

Thanks for posting this article, it has tied in nicely with my students projects, I will be forwarding them on to this site.

Thanks for sharing that!

Thanks for sharing that! Earth Day and Arbor Day are upon us, and we are all encouraged to do something for the arborous plants that cohabitate our space with us. Arbor Day, the holiday for trees, is the day we are all encouraged to plant a tree. It has endorsements from the environmentalists, botanists the globe over, and celebrities ranging from John Denver to Ted Nugent. (Uncle Ted is quite the conservationist, actually.) It's worth getting cash advance loans to plant one, as trees not only are good for the environment, but are splendid aesthetically and add property value to your home. Think of it as giving installment loans to the earth, if you plant a tree on Arbor Day.

-Ariel K

Man vs Nature

Excellent.

I've frequently been amused by some who worship nature, yet spend every waking hour trying to thwart it. They usually believe in natural evolution, but want it stopped NOW.

Man can be, and frequently is, cruel to animals, but man's worst deeds pale in comparison to the cruelty caused by the amoral "collection of physical processes interacting with Earth's biota." Extinction is simply the final act. And while I am repulsed by deliberate cruelty, the term 'animal rights' is ludicrous. Only three entities can ordain a 'right': God, man, and nature. Your God may differ, but the Judeo-Christian God gave man control over the animal kingdom, but gave no rights to animals. Various societies have given some protection to a few species, but those rights are usually very limited and mercurial. That leaves nature. The only 'right' nature has bequeathed to animals seems to be the 'right' to be another animal's snack, which is also the only right given to man. So man can be a little cruel sometimes. Nature is very cruel most of the time.

Yet they still worship nature, and Man, the only entity to offer some rights to animals, is the ultimate evil.

"So man can be a little cruel

"So man can be a little cruel sometimes. Nature is very cruel most of the time."

I don't agree. Nature has no conscious mind, no choice, no options. It is what it is. You can't say that it is cruel, evil, kind or other; emotions does not apply. The same cannot be said about man. We are what we chose to be, and we chose what we want to do, as the only animal race on the planet. With intelligence comes responsibility.

That being said - saving insignificant species for millions of dollars, when that money could be better spent to increase the quality of life for the animals we eat, or lessen the suffering of our own species, seems like a waste of time and money. I completely agree with the article that there's no inherent value of the species, and that it's not plausible to think that we can save every species out there (because of the way nature works); or that it's even desirable.

With that I don't mean that we should consciously drive species extinct though. We can live our lives without doing that, if we chose to, at no monumental cost. It's the most reasonable way to live, seeing as we don't fully understand the ecosystems and thus might end up killing off a lot more animal and plant species than we had originally intended to. Let nature itself handle that balance.

/EZ

Man Vs Wild

Yea but we are part of the wild itself. Being the dominate species on earth we express our dominance by destroying everything, being selfish and not caring for our own planet. Now after all we are crying about global warming and the spread of disease like mad cow and swine flu.

grr

ahhh

oh be quiet hippie!.. this is our planet. the animals are just renting space

Understanding begins with respect

Respect the essence of Spirit, the Love from which it sprang, and the river of life in which it flows.

"oh be quiet hippie!.. this

"oh be quiet hippie!.. this is our planet. the animals are just renting space"

Was mankind the first species to arrive on planet Earth?
No, we're the species that has done the best to make its presence felt, by fair means and foul.
We're the only species that pays rent for being here.
If it wasn't for an opposed thumb and a (so called) higher brain, humans would have become extinct long ago.
Humans are physically, the weakest species on the planet and our days here are numbered.

Preserving Species

Doing something for the Earth Day and Arbor Day alone will never help in preserving the species. Our planet has got many rare creatures in birds, animals, reptiles and other water-living species as well. There are many organizations involved in preserving them too. But, being on earth, every individual must take up some responsibility in doing something for these lovable species. they are completely dependent on us.