Preserving Biodiversity Just for the Beauty of Nature

The beauty of nature has value in and of itself and warrants preservation, argue the authors in this installment of a regular feature.

| July/August 1981

070 ecoscience - ehrlichs

Ecologists Anne and Paul Ehrlich argued that pure aesthetics—the beauty of nature—was a valid reason to preserve biodiversity beyond the usual practical or utilitarian considerations.


The direct and indirect economic benefits that human beings receive from other species are potent reasons for deep concern about the ongoing extinction of the world's plants, animals, and microbes. But there are other, largely noneconomic, reasons for doing our best to preserve biodiversity. Reasons which some people may think trivial, but which others feel are among the most important of all: that the species with which we share the earth are beautiful, they're fascinating, and they have a right to exist. 

The beauty of nature—of such organisms as butterflies, birds, reef fishes, and flowering plants—is widely recognized. But many less well-known fauna and flora are—when viewed objectively—attractive also. For example, some tiny wasps and flies, if seen under a microscope, appear to be fashioned out of solid gold. And the algae known as diatoms have glasslike shells that are as exquisite and varied as snowflakes.

Indeed, all organisms at least exhibit the beauty of design. Even the tiniest beetles—some of which are scarcely larger than a period on this page—have complete external skeletons, nervous and digestive systems, and complex sets of muscles. Such insects show a degree of sophisticated miniaturization as yet unapproached by human engineers.

Aesthetic Diversions

In addition to their conventional beauty, living organisms have what might be called a "beauty of interest." Their diversity of form and behavior is a potential source of infinite fascination in a world often hungry for diversion. This quality is attested to by the immense popularity of such hobbies as bird watching and keeping tropical fish.

The insects, however, are among the least appreciated of our aesthetic resources. But, as one becomes acquainted with them, they'll often stop looking like an amorphous mob of bugs and come to be seen as a highly differentiated group of the rivets holding Spaceship Earth together. Take beetles, for instance. There are probably over a million species of the hard-shelled insects. In fact, when a lady asked the famous British biologist J.B.S. Haldane what one could conclude about the nature of the Creator by studying His or Her creations, Haldane is reputed to have replied that He or She must surely have had "an inordinate fondness for beetles."

It certainly is true that members of this particular order of insects display a great variety of shapes and sizes. The giant rhinoceros beetle of the tropics, for instance—which is the heaviest of all insects—weighs more than the smallest mammals. The males of the species use their grotesque horns in fierce Lilliputian battles over females. Last December, near Iguazu Falls in southwestern Brazil, we picked up some of these big insects to bring home to John Holdren's teenage son, who is a devout beetle collector. The "rhinos" were so strong that they easily walked through plastic bags and forced their way out of cardboard boxes!

Indeed, books could be written about beetle behavior. Bombardier beetles, for example, can shoot a hot, unpleasant spray from their tails at their enemies. Fireflies (a kind of beetle) use their flashing lights to arrange meetings for mating. The females of some lightning bug species even flash the "code" of other species and then devour the hapless amorous males that come flying in! Other insects perform in equally unusual ways.

In short, insects display the same kind of beauty and intricacy that captivates gun collectors, airplane and train buffs, philatelists, science fiction and computer enthusiasts, bibliophiles, and so on. Therefore, even if insects didn't play crucial roles in our ecosystems, the loss of their diversity would make our world a much less interesting place.

Knowledge Breeds Compassion

As humankind gets to know its fellow creatures, interest is often followed by compassion. Numerous books and television documentaries about whales—combined with the performances of killer whales in marine parks—have, in recent years, transformed people's attitudes toward these highly intelligent animals. Once the great mammals were simply considered to be a source of oil and meat. Today their welfare has become a matter of great concern for many human beings.

One turning point in human relationships with these gentle giants was the discovery that humpback whales sing long, complex, beautiful songs. These melodies may last for as long as 30 minutes and may be repeated verbatim indefinitely. The songs—clearly audible through the hulls of ships—were the basis of many seamen's legends. We've been lucky enough to hear them ourselves, both underwater and in the cabin of a sailboat.

It's hard to imagine how someone who has watched humpbacks jumping clear of the water like gigantic salmon or "lobtailing" (lifting their flukes and, like beavers, slapping the surface of the water with them) could kill these animals for dog food! Most of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who've seen the whales cavort in the waters off Maui's beaches in Hawaii would agree with Herman Melville's early description of the humpback: "He is the most gamesome and lighthearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water generally than any other of them.

"Human Arrogance"

The compassion that many of us feel for other life forms creates the basis of what some consider the most potent argument in favor of preserving other species. The contention is basically a religious one: that our fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth, who may be our only living companions in the entire universe, have a right to exist . 

David Ehrenfeld, in his thought-provoking book The Arrogance of Humanism , called this the "Noah Principle" after the best-known practitioner of conservation in history. In Ehrenfeld's view, species and communities should be conserved "because they exist and because this existence is itself but the present expression of a continuing historical process of immense antiquity and majesty. Long-standing existence in Nature carries with it the unimpeachable right to continued existence."

Many individuals—from Buddha on—have questioned whether human beings have the right to kill other animals at all, let alone push any species to extinction ... which is to play God. To many such people, including Ehrenfeld, the elimination of a unique group of organisms must be the ultimate form of arrogance, and must be based upon a conviction that human beings are the only important form of life and that they alone should decide whether others should be permitted to live or not.

Of course, there's no scientific way to "prove" that nonhuman organisms (or, for that matter, humans themselves) have a right to exist. But we and others believe that along with the preeminence that Homo sapiens has achieved goes a very great moral responsibility—a stewardship, if you will—upon which we must not turn our backs. Perhaps especially because we have the power to destroy them, we must respect the rights of our co-inhabitants of Earth. 

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