Apprehension about the disappearance of animal or plant

species may be misplaced, a naturalist argues, and may arise out

of a mistaken and shortsighted view of the evolutionary process.

by: Thomas Palmer

A N ARGUMENT , A HUMAN ARGUMENT, MAINTAINS THAT we ought we ought to be concerned about the disappearance of individual animal species . If it could be directed at the objects of its solicitude, it would go approximately as follows: “You lesser beasts had better watch out of step—we’ll decide when you can leave.” It recognizes that once chromosome patterns combine at the species level, they become unique and irreplaceable — one cannot make a rattlesnake, for instance, out of anything but more rattlesnakes. It looks at the speed a t which such patterns are disappearing and shudders to think how empty our grandchildren’ s world might become patternwise.

In the past twenty years (since 1972) this argument has conquered much of the world; it may soon become part of the thinking of nearly every school child.

Perhaps because we ourselves arc a species, we regard the species level as that at which deaths become truly irreversible. Populations, for instance, can and do fade in and out; when a species dies, however, we call it extinct and retire its name forever, being reasonably certain that it will not reappear in its old form.

Students of evolution have shown that species death, or extinction, is going on all the time, and that it is an essential feature of life history. Species are adapted to their environments; as environments change, some species find themselves in the position of islanders whose islands are washing away, and they go under. Similarly, new islands (or environments) arc appearing all the time, and they almost invariably produce new species.

What alarms so many life historians is not that extinctions arc occurring but that they appear to be occurring at a greater rate than they have at all but a few times in the past, raising the specter of the sort of wholesale die-offs that ended the reign of the dinosaurs. Do we want, they ask, to exile most of our neighbors to posterity? Exactly how much of our planet’s resources do we mean to funnel into people- making? Such questions are serious; they involve choosing among futures, and some of these futures are already with us, in the form of collapsing international fisheries, rich grasslands gnawed and trampled into deserts, forests skeletonized by wind-borne acids, and so forth. Thus high rates of extinction are seen as a symptom of major problems in the way our species operates—problems that may, if we’re not careful, be solved for us. A ncw word has been coined to define the value most threatencd by these overheated rates: “biodiversity.” As species disappear, biodiversitv declines, and our planet’s not-quite-limitless fund of native complexities—so some argue—declines with it.

The process described above is indeed occurring. Human beings tend to change environments; when they do, species vanish. The Puritans, for example, though famous for their cfforts to discipline sexuality, imposed upon Massachusetts an orgy of ecological licentiousness: they introduced dozens of microbes, weeds, and pests foreign to the region, some of which played havoc with the natives. Human beings tend to travel everywhere, and to bring their cats, rats, and fleas with them, so that hardly any environment is truly isolated today, and creatures that evolved in isolated environments have paid a high price. Of the 171 species and subspecies of birds that have become extinct in the past 300 years, for example, 155 were island forms.

Since extinction is a particularly final and comprehensive form of death, species preservation and its corollary, habitat protection, are now seen as the most important means available to stem the erosion of biodiversity. So far, so good—but I wonder if these ideas, which emphasize diversity at the species level, fail to give an adequate picture of recent biological history. If, for instance, biodiversity is regarded as the chief measure of a landscape’s richness, then the American continents reached their peak of splendor on the day after the first Siberian spearmen arrived, and have been deteriorating ever since. More recent developments—such as the domestication of maize, the rise of civilizations in Mexico and Peru, and the passage of the U.S. Bill of Rights—are neutral at best, and are essentially very invisible, since they arc the work of a single species, a species no more or less weighty than any other, and already present at the start of the interval. But what kind of yardstick measures a handful of skin-clad hunters against Chicago, Los Angeles, and Caracas, and finds one group no more “diverse” than the other?

A considerable amount of pessimism is built into this species-based notion of diversity . Nearly all change on such a scale is change for the worse----- especially human-mediated . change. Change involves stress, and stress causes extinctions; each extinction is another pock in the skin of an edenic original. This original is frozen in time; more often than not, it is defined as the blissful instant just prior to the arrival of the first human being. In fact, the only way to re-create this instant, and restore biodiversity to its greatest possible richness, would be to arrange for every human being on earth to drop dead tomorrow.

This is not to say that cities are better than coral reefs, or that binary codes are an improvement of genetic ones, but only that “biodiversity” cannot adequately now account for the phenomenon of Homo sapiens.

Maybe it’s time to give up the notion of human beings as intruders, tramplers, and destroyers. We are all of these, there’s no doubt about it, but they are not all we are. And yet the same mind-set that interprets human history as little more than a string of increasingly lurid ecological crimes also insists that our species represents the last, best hope of “saving” the planet. Is it any wonder that the future looks bleak?

Here we have the essential Puritan outlook disguised as science—human beings, the sinners, occupy center stage, and cannot move a muscle without risking the direst consequences in a cosmic drama . At stake is the fate of the world; thousands of innocents (other species) rely on the shaky powers of human foresight. One false step—and our ancestors, as we know, have taken almost nothing but false steps— and our dwelling place may be mutilated beyond redemption.

This outlook is realistic in its recognition that our species is different in kind from all others, as any visitor from outer space would admit ; it is obnoxious in the limits it places on the organic experiment. Human consciousness—whether in the form of Bach chorales, three-masted schooners, or microwave communications—cannot, in this view, contribute to biodiversity, except by staying as far out of the picture as possible, so as to avoid tainting still-intact landscapes with unnatural influences. The possibility that chorales and schooners might represent positive contributions to biotic richness—that they might, just as much as any rain-forest orchid, embody the special genius of this planet—is never admitted. Somehow an agreement has been reached to exclude whatever is human from the sum of biodiversity—as if the Apollo landings, for example, do not represent an astonishing breakthrough in strictly biological terms.

This view has a certain legitimacy as long as its definition of diversity is narrowly chromosomal, or species-based. Those environments richest in species—the very tropical forests and the warm-water seas—arc, from its perspective, the most diverse and complex. But I would argue that this definition, though accurate enough for most of the history of life, became obsolete about a half million years ago, when Homo sapiens came on the scene. This creature released organic change from its age-old dependence on genetic recombination and harnessed it to new energies—culture, symbolic language, and imagination. As is becoming more and more evident, nothing has been the same since.

B EING RELUCTANT TO ACKNOWLEDGE THIS FACT, ecologists, biologists, and environmentalists have had fits trying to introduce our species into their models of the natural world. These models are based on the idea of true balance, or equilibrium, wherein each variety of plant or animal plays a limited, genetically prescribed role in the cycling of materials and energy. The roles arc not ahsolutely fixed—natural selection, by sorting and resorting chromosomes, can adapt lines of descent to new ones—but change, by and large, is assumed to be gradual, and millions of years can pass without any notable restructuring of communities.

Human beings cannot be worked into such models. One cannot look at human beings and predict what they will eat, or where they will live, or how many of their children a given landscape will support. If they inhabit a forest, they may burn it down and raise vegetables, or flood it and plant rice, or sell it to a pulp-and-paper manufacturer . They may think of anything; the life their parents led is not a reliable blueprint, but merely a box with a thousand exits. Moralists in search of instructive contrasts will sometimes idealize primitive societies, claiming that they deliberately live “in balance” with their environments, but these examples don’t stand up to scrutiny. The Massachuse t Indians, for instance, though sometimes presented as sterling conservationists, were the descendants of aboriginal American hunters who appear to have pursued a whole constellation of Ice Age mammals to extinction (including several species of horses). When, in historical times, they were offered

metal flshhooks, knives, and firearms, they didn’t say, “Thanks, but we prefer rock- chipping.”

The revelation that we are not like other creatures in certain crucial respects is an ancient one, and may be nearly as old as humanity; it probably contributed to the idea, central to several major religions, that we inhabit a sort of permanent exile. Until recently, however, we could still imagine ourselves encompassed by, if not entirely contained in, landscapes dominated by nonhuman forces—weather, infectious illness, growing seasons, light and darkness, and so forth. This is no longer so; today most human beings live in artificial wildernesses called cities, and don’t raise the food they eat, or know where the water they drink fell as rain . A sort of vertigo has set in—a feeling that a rhythm has been upset, and that soon nothing will he left of the worlds that made us. This feeling is substantiated by population curves, ocean pollution, chemical changes in the earth’s atmosphere, vanishing wildlife, mountains of garbage, and numerous other signs that anyone can read. The nineteenth-century conservation movement, which sought to preserve landscapes for largely aesthetic reasons, has become absorbed in the twentieth-century environmental movement, which insists that more is at stake than postcard views. We are, it argues, near to exceeding the carrying capacity of our planet’s natural systems, systems whose importance to us will become very obvious when they

begin to wobble and fail.

These are not empty warnings. Human communities can and occasionally do self-destruct by over-straining their resource bases. Historical examples include the Easter Islanders, the lowland Maya, and some of the classical-era city-dwellers of the Middle East and North Africa. But if we set aside the equilibrium-based models of the ecologists, and do not limit ourselves to species-bound notions of diversity— in other words, if we seek to include human beings in the landscape of nature, and rather than make them outcasts—-what sort of picture do we get of the phenomenon of life

The difference between life and non-life, according to the biologists, is a matter of degree. A glass of seawater, for instance, contains many of the same materials as a condor (or a green turtle) What makes one alive and the other not are the varying chemical pathways those materials follow. The glass of water contains few internal boundaries, and gases diffuse freely across its surface. In the condor, in contrast, a much more complex array of reactions is in progress, reactions that maintain certain molecular-energy potentials in an oddly elevated state, even though the bird as a whole shows a net energy loss . In other words, both the condor and the glass of water cycle energy, but in the condor the energy goes to support a level of complexity not present in the water.

Perhaps the condor is more like a candle flame both burn energy, and that burning keeps certain patterns intact. The condor, like the candle, can burn out. But although one can relight the candle, one cannot relight the condor—it is too delicately tuned, too dependent on various internal continuities.

As useful as these distinctions are, they tend to blur under increased magnification. A virus, for instance, is more condor-like than flame-like, because the energy and materials it draws from its surroundings reappear not primarily as heat, light, and simple oxides but as viral protein and nucleic acids—complex substances that the flame cannot construct but only disassemble. And yet most students agree that viruses are not alive, because they cannot build these substances without the aid of the machineries inside a living cell. A certain level of independence is necessary —living things, according to this definition, not only must transform simple compounds into more varied and characteristic ones but also must be able to do so in an atmosphere of non-life.

L IFE, FOR THE BIOLOGISTS, IS AN UPHILL OR RETRO-GRADE e process—it adds order and complexity to environments whose overall tendency is toward diffusion and disorder. It captures energies released by decay and exploits them for growth and rebirth. It is startlingly anomalous in this respect: so far as we know, it occurs nowhere but on the surface of this planet, and even here its appearance seems to have been a one-time-only event; though many lifelike substances have been produced inside sterile glassware, none has ever quickened into veritable beasthood.

The evidence suggests that life continued to fructify and elaborate itself for several billion years after its appearance. The milestones along the way—the nucleated cell, photosynthesis, sexual reproduction, multicellularity, the internal skeleton, the invasion of the land and sky, and so forth—are usually interpreted as advances, because they added additional layers of complexity, interconnection, and ordered interaction to existing systems. This drama did not proceed without crises—photosynthesis, for instance, probably wiped out entire ecosystems by loading the atmosphere with a deadly poison, free oxygen—but life as a whole laughed at such insults, and continued on its protean way.

If we believe that all life—in contrast to rocks and gases—shares a certain quality of sensitivity, or self-awareness, then Homo sapiens was an astonishing and wholly unpredictable leap forward in this respect, because human beings manifested an idea of personhood never before achieved. The exact moment of this discovery is of course problematic, as are most events in evolution, but I would date it from early summer about 60,000 years ago, when a group of Neanderthals living in present-day Iraq lost one of their members, dug a grave for him in the Shanidar Cave of the Zagros Mountain highlands, placed his body inside, and covered it with yarrow blossoms, cornflowers, hyacinths, and mallows. Here, in a gesture of very remarkable grace, a group of living creatures betrayed an awareness that creatureliness is a pose, a pose that can’t be held forever.

The poignancy of this moment is profound. Though the idea is startling to consider, all the evidence suggests that most of life’s history has unfolded unobserved, so to speak. I would bet that the dinosaurs, for instance, did not know that they were reptiles, or that they had faces like their neighbors, or that they once hatched from eggs like their offspring.

CONSCIOUSNESS. MIND. INSIGHT. Here are qualities that, if not exclusively human, seem appallingly rudimentary elsewhere. Primitive peoples distributed them throughout their worlds; we moderns hold to stricter standards of evidence. Does a cloud yearn, for instance, to drop rain? Is a seed eager to sprout? The irruption of thoughtfulness that our species represents is not inexplicable in Darwinian terms. Once our apelike and erect ancestors began using weapons, hunting large animals, and sharing the spoils, the ability to develop plans and communicate them acquired considerable survival value, and was genetically enhanced. This ability, and the tripling in brain weight that accompanied it, turned out to be one of the most revolutionary experiments in the history of gene-sorting. It was as if Nature, after wearing out several billion years tossing off new creatures like nutshells, looked up to see that one had come back, and was eyeing her strangely.

The distance between that moment and today is barely a hiccup, geologically speaking. We are genetically almost indistinguishable from those bear-roasters and mammoth-stickers. But the world is a different place now. Grad students in ecology, for instance, are expected to do a certain amount of “fieldwork,” and many of them have to travel hundreds and even thousands of miles before they consider themselves far enough from classrooms to be in the field.

Plainly, our planet contained vast opportunities for creatures willing to shape it consciously toward their ends. The way was clear; we know of no other species that has divined what we’ve been up to, or has a mind to object. What seems simple to us is far beyond them; its almost as if we move so fast that we are invisible, and they are still trying to pretend—without much success that the world is the same as it was before we arrived

This speed on the uptake appears to be the chief advantage that cultural adaptation has over genetic. When human beings encounter new circumstances, adaptation rarely depends on which individuals are genetically best suited to adjust, passing on their abilities more successfully than others and producing subsequent generations better adapted to the new order . No, human beings tend to cut the loop short by noticing the new, puzzling over it, telling their friends, and attempting to find out immediately whether it is edible, combustible, domesticable or whatever. In this way we develop traditions that are immaterial, so to speak, in that they evolve on a track largely disengaged from the double helix.

This talent for endless jabber and experiment, and the pooling of useful knowledge it makes possible, means that human beings, unlike orangutans or condors, operate not primarily as individuals scattered over a landscape but as shareholders in a common fund of acquired skills, many of them the work of previous generations. This fund is extraordinarily deep and sophisticated, even among the most isolated bands of hunter-gatherers; when, as in recent times, it has included experience accumulated by thousands or even millions of forebears it has enabled our species to become the quickest-acting agent of change in life’s history. In fact, we might sensibly think of the human species not as five billion distinct selves but as five billion nodes in a single matrix, just as the human body is more commonly considered a unit than an accumulation of cells. If life, as before noted, is a paradoxical chemical process by which order arises from disorder, and a movement toward uniformity produces more-complex local conditions, then human enterprise, though full of disasters for other species, is clearly not outside the main line of development. Equatorial rain forests, for instance, are probably the most diverse and multifaceted communities of species on earth. But are they more densely stuffed with highly refined codes and labels than, say, the Library of Congress? Long ago certain moths learned to communicate over as much as two miles of thick woods by releasing subtle chemicals that prospective mates could detect at levels measured in parts per million; today a currency broker in Tokyo can pick up a phone and hear accurate copies of sounds vocalized a split second earlier by a counterpart on the other side of the world. Which system of signals is more sensitive and flexible?

I AM CONCERNED, AS IS OBVIOUS, WITH AN IMAGE ----THE IMAGE of our species as a vast, featureless mob of yahoos mindlessly trampling this planet’s most ancient and delicate harmonies. This image, which is on its way to becoming an article of faith, is not a completely inaccurate description of present conditions in some parts of the world, but it portrays the human presence as a sort of monolithic disaster, when in fact Homo sapiens is the crown of creation, if by creation we mean the explosion of earthly vitality and particularity long ago ignited by a weak solution of amino acids mixing in sunlit waters.

CHANGE—DRAMATIC, WHOLESALE CHANGE— is one of the most reliable constants of this story. To say that the changes we have brought, and will continue to bring, are somehow alien to the world, and are within a half inch of making its “natural” continuance impossible, displays some contempt, I think, for the forces at work, along with a large dose of inverted pride. Who are we, for instance, to say what’s possible and what isn’t? Have we already glimpsed the end? Where exactly did things go awry? It’s useful to remember that just yesterday our main concern was finding something to eat.

I prefer to suppose that we will be here awhile, and that such abilities as we have, though unprecedented in certain respects, are not regrettable. The human mind for instance, could never have set itself the task of preserving rare species if earlier minds had not learned how to distinguish light from darkness, or coordinate limbs, or identify mates. Now that we think we know something about our immediate neighborhood, we are beginning to realize what a rare quality life is, and if we think of its multibillion-year history on earth as a sort of gradual awakening of matter, we must conclude that the dawning of human consciousness represents one of the most extraordinary sunrises on record. Is it any wonder, then, that the world is changing?

Perhaps because we have become so expert at interrogating our surroundings, we tremble a little at our own shadows . God, for instance, has become almost a fugitive. We have disassembled the atom; we have paced off the galaxies; He doesn’t figure in our equations.

Maybe it would be useful at this point to compare our common birthplace to a fertile hen’s egg. Nearly everyone has seen the delicate tracery of blood vessels that begins to spread across the yolk of such an egg within a few hours of laying. Before long a tiny pump starts to twitch rhythmic ally, and it drives a bright scarlet fluid through these vessels. The egg doesn’t know that it is on its way to becoming a chicken. Chickens, for the egg, lie somewhere on the far side of the beginning of time . And yet the egg couldn’t be better equipped to make a chicken out of itself.

I would argue that our planet, like the egg, is on a mission of sorts. We don’t know what that mission is any more than the nascent nerve cells in the egg know why they are forming a network. All we know is that things are changing rapidly and dramatically.

Today many believe that these changes are often for the worse, and represent a fever or virus from which the body of life will emerge crippled and scarred. We look back with longing on a time, only a moment ago, when the human presence barely dimpled the landscape—when the yolk, so to speak, was at its creamiest, and no angry little eye-spots signaled an intent to devour everything.

I’m not persuaded by this picture—I think it arises from a mistaken belief that the outlines of earthly perfection are already evident. It has inspired a small army of doomsayers—if we burn the forests of the Amazon, we are told, our planet’s lungs will give out, and we will slowly asphyxiate . Surely we have better, more practical reasons for not burning them than to stave off universal catastrophe. I can easily imagine similar arguments that would have required the interior of North America to remain empty of cities—and yet I don’t think this continent is a poorer place now than it was 20,000 years ago. The more convinced we are that our species is a plague, the more we are obliged to yearn for disasters.

Students of historical psychology have noticed that the end of the world is always at hand. For the Puritan preachers it was to take the form of divine wrath, and they warned that the Wampanoag war was only a fore-taste . The Yankees saw it coming in the flood of nineteenth-century immigrants, who meant to drown true American-ism. Today we are more likely to glimpse it in canned aerosols, poisoned winds, and melting ice caps.

Curiously enough, the end of the world always is at hand—the world dies and is reborn on a daily basis. A fertile hen’s egg is never today what it was yesterday, or will be tomorrow. Few would deny that the effort to preserve and protect as many as possible of the millions of species now existing represents a fresh and heartening expansion of human ambitions. But to suppose that earthly diversity is past its prime, and that a strenuous program of self-effacement is the best contribution our species has left to offer, is neither good biology nor good history .


The ATLANTIC Monthly

Vol. 269. No. 1. January 1992. (Pgs. 83-88)

745 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116

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