Preserving Biodiversity Just for the Beauty of Nature

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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.

There has been a historical trend toward
expanding the notion of “rights” to include creatures other
than Homo sapiens. A century ago, for example, it was
permissible to beat a horse to death if it was your
“property.” Today, horses are legally protected against
such abuse. Indeed, the idea that other animals have
intrinsic rights is now widespread. This change in attitude
is seen in the general revulsion at such spectacles as the
Canadian slaughter of baby seals and the killing of
dolphins by Japanese fishing crews. Increasingly, it’s enshrined
in our humane laws.

We think the trend should be further encouraged, however,
so that “rights” can be extended even further beyond
domestic animals to plants and, perhaps, even to such
inanimate components of ecosystems as rocks and landforms.
Such a notion was proposed by the famous conservationist
Aldo Leopold in 1948, when he called for the development of
a “land ethic” in which the “land” (he used the term as
shorthand for “natural ecosystems”) would be used but not
abused. He wrote, “A land ethic changes the role of
Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community
to plain member of it. It implies respect for his fellow
members and also respect for the community as such.”

The development of an ethic of respect would probably be
the very best way to save humanity from the catastrophic
effects of its assault on organic diversity. Of course,
such an ethic would have to transcend immediate economic
considerations. (In the long term it would have
extremely positive economic effects.) As conservationist
Rod Nash once most colorfully put it: “One does not
consider the price [of defense] if someone threatens to
rape one’s daughter. With environmental ethics a reality,
the same might be true of attempts to rape the land.”

A Touch of Brightness and Light

However, the general acceptance of the notion that other
species have rights will probably be long in gaining
acceptance. For example, a few years back many millions of
Americans got to know a mountain gorilla named Digit when he appeared with primatologist Dian Fossey in a
National Geographic Society television special. He had, in
a very real sense, become a friend of Dian’s, and the
documentary showed him examining her pen and her notebook, gently returning each one, and then lying down and
going to sleep by her side.

But on the last day of 1977, Digit was speared to death by
some poachers in Rwanda’s Parc des Volcans. Five mortal
thrusts felled him as he remained behind to buy time,
allowing more vulnerable members of his family group to
flee. He was killed by people who wanted the head and hands
of a “silverback” male to make into souvenirs for
tourists.

Dian christened Digit’s baby, conceived before his death,
“Mwelu” (the name is Swahili for “a touch of brightness and
light”). Many people hope that Mwelu will have a chance for
a normal gorilla existence, but others ask, “What good are
gorillas?” and conclude that the large apes are
really of no value at all. Such men and women believe that
killing Digit was right, and that the best use of the
remaining gorilla habitat in the park would be to convert
it to grazing land.

The latter attitude is so widespread today that we
sometimes wonder whether there’s any real hope of a new
ethic spreading fast enough to save the Mwelus of the
planet … or Homo sapiens. As yet, far too few people
realize that our fate is inextricably intertwined with that
of the beings our species is so heedlessly pushing toward
extinction. Human life is as dependent upon the continued
existence of these other essential components of Earth’s
ecosystems as they are dependent upon us to spare them.
Perhaps that reality, if nothing else, will at last give
birth to compassion and respect for life in “practical”
people.


For an expanded treatment of this subject, see Paul and
Anne Ehrlich’s
Ex tinction: The Causes and Consequences of
the Disappearance of Species (Random House, New York, 1981, $15.95)
on which this column is based. In addition, David
Ehrenfeld’s
The Arrogance of Humanism is now available in
paperback(Oxford University Press, New York, 1981, $5.95).
And for an interesting discussion of the “rights of
rocks”,consult C.D. Stone’s
Should Trees Have Standing?
Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects (Kaufmann, Los
Altos, California, 1974, $3.75).


Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. As well they should be. Because it was Paul and Anne who–through their writing and research–gave special meaning to the words “population,” “resources,” and “environment” in the late 1960’s. (They also coined the term coevolution, and did a lot to make ecology the household word it is today.) But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs’ popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us–for instance–have read Paul’s book The Population Bomb), far too few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (research of the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college textbooks). That’s why it pleases us to be able to present these semi-technical columns by authors/ecologists/educators Anne and Paul Ehrlich.