Sunday, March 30, 2014

Magical thinking about evolution and the environment

It is almost an article of faith among certain parts of the left that they are the party of science. The right is full of knuckle-dragging, global-warming denying, creationism-boosting ignoramuses. Obviously science will confirm progressive principles.

Of course, this is generally false when it comes to matters of race. But it's also frequently wrong when it comes to various aspects of environmental policy too.

Take, for instance, the problem of species extinction.

Environmentalists take it practically as a given that the potential extinction of any species is a source of grave concern necessitating immediate action, almost regardless of cost. Some tiny fish that you've never heard of might be endangered? Better shut down the water flow to lots of California farmland!

Of course, they never explain exactly what large problem would occur if the damn delta smelt were to go extinct after all. Occasionally, they'll appeal in vague terms to the interconnectedness of ecosystems, and how the whole edifice might come crashing down if any one part is changed, but they never seem to present much evidence for this contention. It's almost as if they feel that they identify so much with all the parts of the natural environment that this excuses them of the need to identify a likely problem for the environment as a whole. Species extinction is an inherent problem in their world.

Here's the actual reality - by the time a species is on the endangered list, it would create very few environmental problems if it actually became extinct.

Mostly this is a simple matter of accounting. If there are in fact only 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild, how much of the rest of the ecosystem can they possibly be sustaining? Not very much. This isn't to say that if the entire continent of Africa were blanketed with mountain gorillas, there would be no consequence to killing them all. But that's not the world we live in. If most of the mountain gorillas have already died out over the decades, this tells you that most of the ecosystem has already adjusted just fine to the absence of mountain gorillas. Whatever the consequences of their absence might be, you're already seeing most of them. Do you see an environmental problem in the world today that you can attribute to a lack of gorillas? I sure don't.

Do you know what part of science tells me that species extinction is not, in fact, an inherent problem for the environment? @#$%ing evolution, that's what. For all the joy that leftists take in using evolution as a club to beat the right (not without some justification, it must be noted), lots of them seem to display a pretty dim grasp of its basics.

You might have thought that the phrase 'survival of the fittest' would have given them a clue, but no. The flip side of 'survival of the fittest' is 'extinction of the unfit'. This is the feature of evolution, not the bug. Some species are hardy and survive. Those that don't either evolve to something sturdier, or they die.

Every glorious species in today's ecosystem is there because some previously glorious species was no longer able to compete and went extinct. We have the Delta smelt because it evolved from or out-competed some other fish that used to be there but now isn't.

You may feel sad that a species goes extinct, but the environment itself doesn't give a rat's. The earth's ecosystem as a whole is incredibly tough and resilient. The form it takes will differ over time, but life will survive. Do you think humans could really destroy all life on the planet deliberately, let alone by accident or negligence? We can't kill all the weeds on our front lawn. We can't even kill all the cockroaches in the average house, despite an entire industry equipped with modern technology devoted exclusively to the task!

Now, there is another reason why we perhaps should mourn species extinction - that we as humans enjoy seeing the splendours of nature in all her forms, and wish to preserve as much of it as possible.

I am actually quite sympathetic to this argument. But proponents should be honest enough to admit that this is only an aesthetic argument. There is no inherent moral basis why all species should be preserved, or why the species is even a relevant unit of account if you cared about animal welfare.

In other words, preserving all the world's species is only an important goal because modern humans generally value it so.

But this is a highly contingent argument - people value lots of stuff, and there are tradeoffs. Perhaps they value the delta smelt to some extent, but they also value cheap food, and farmers not being put out of jobs, and democratic decision-making. There is no particular reason why the continued existence of a relatively unimportant type of fish should dominate all these other things as a categorical imperative. Would you mourn the extinction of the Ebola virus or polio? If not, why should you mourn the possible extinction of man-eating sharks? I'd celebrate it. Good riddance! Think of all the families who would never know that in an alternative universe where the environmentalists got what they wanted, their father might have been eaten by a shark.

Of course, if environmentalists actually acknowledged that this is an aesthetic and contingent argument, they'd need to try to convince people that they actually ought to care about some damn fish they'd never heard of until yesterday.

That, of course, would be beneath their dignity. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy, after all, and if you don't see it they're not in the mood to explain why.

Me, I'm pro-human, and I'm pro things that humans think are important. Sometimes that includes preserving certain species, particularly ones that are cuddly and photogenic. Sometimes it doesn't.

But doubt it not, the environment will be just fine either way.

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