Do we need pandas?

I’m quite pleased that the Society of Biology has asked me to speak at the opening debate to promote Biology Week. Although the proliferation of commemorative days, weeks, and months risks stultifying many people, this seems an event worth supporting. The title is “Do we need pandas? Choosing which species to save”, and I thought I’d document my thoughts here.

I certainly agree with the first part of what my OUMNH colleague George McGavin had to say in a 2010 debate. Life on earth is not fragile. Unless we work out a way of sending the earth into the sun, or something equally ridiculous, we won’t destroy all of life – and whatever is left we re-evolve into interesting creatures. We can say that with relative certainty, because there have been many large extinction events over the entire of earth’s history. That includes times when most of the surface was covered in ice, and a major polluting event which destroyed the vast majority of life at the time (the production of oxygen).

However, it’s undoubtedly true that human proliferation is causing a major wave of current extinctions – primarily due to habitat loss, but also increased movement and homogenising of environments (e.g. invasive species, new diseases, etc). So I think our moral responsibility is not to the (geologically) long term survival of any particular species, many of which will go extinct in the long run. The reason we want to conserve life is basically selfish: to help ourselves and future generations.

As for selfish motives, well, we could frame this debate in terms of direct economic benefit from “ecosystem services”, “potential useful new discoveries”, etc. But we have to be careful, because it doesn’t fully capture what I (and many others) would deem important. That’s clear if we imagine swapping e.g. an erosion-preventive forest against a new, cheap engineered anti-erosion system, or if we imagine cutting down an endemic forest in order to fund research into a set of new “wonder drugs”. I still feel there’s something inherently bad about destroying all that living diversity.

That’s not to say the argument from eventual monetary gain is a bad thing: it tells us the minimum sensible amount to conserve. But I find it not sufficient. To me, living as a human being is not solely about food, shelter, reproduction – I need to be mentally stimulated – I need the thrill of learning and playing with new ideas – and I think that’s true for all of us, one way or another. It’s almost what defines human civilisation. Obviously, as a biologist, I’m biased, but I think many of those ideas – not purely scientific, but artistic too, come from the natural world. The living systems that have been built up over billions of years of evolution are an endlessly simulating source of ideas – the most complex uncharted territory we will ever come into contact with.

Hence a primary reason for conservation biology is to preserve interesting and fascinating systems which give us intellectual pleasure and insight into nature. That’s why I’m terribly saddened that future humans, including my own children, will be living in a biologically depauperate world. I see it as part of my job to act to retain a good amount of that diversity. I think this is the angle most biologists would take, and it’s why the most common argument is to undertake habitat (or possibly “ecosystem”) conservation – which preserves the diversity of natural systems. It’s why ex-situ conservation (e.g. keeping pandas entirely in zoos) is generally seen as an undesirable solution. There are some areas of the world where the diversity is considerable and unique, and it’s those areas that provide the most fascinating natural systems. It’s why I’m particularly saddened by loss of biodiverse tropical forests, or SE asian marine areas.

If at least we can agree that conservation of biodiverse habitat is the priority, then the “panda debate” turns into something else. In particular, does focussing on one species (e.g. pandas) lead to the best habitat conservation outcome. This is a question to which there is, in principle, a rational answer, although it requires an understanding of human psychology, society, and economics which we may not yet possess. It could be that focussing resources on pandas removes those resources from other places. Alternatively, it could be that investing in panda conservation encourages more people to invest in other conservation efforts. It could be that focussing on pandas is an effective way of guarding habitat. Alternatively, it could be that it leads to people protecting pandas while letting the rest of the habitat go to hell in a handcart. Or it could be that you risk pandas going extinct, and with them, the incentive to preserve their habitat. These are all questions that are potentially answerable. It’s just that I personally don’t have the social science and political expertise to answer them. Let’s hope some people do.

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