Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Today I bring you the next in the series of Philosophers Philosophizing.  Sorry it's taken so long, but yet again I have traversed the western half of the country and am back in Kansas City.  This time I picked up my daughter, Lisa, in Flagstaff.  The drive was infinitely more entertaining with her along.  For three days, we solved the problems of the world, and dubbed our car The Rolling Think Tank.  We came up with such enlightenment as "The reason clouds are flat on the bottom is because they are sitting atop the glass ceiling."  We wondered which state in the union might have the most Jesus signs along the highway.  Kansas is a big contender, but our facebook friends say Georgia, Texas, Tennessee and Alabama compete.  Lisa mused that the clouds are lower in Kansas, and wondered if the phenomenon is somehow related to the Jesus signs. We argued about the viability of cow tipping (I say it's an urban legend, Lisa says she knows people who've done it), but opted not to find out for ourselves despite cows a'plenty lounging on either side of the road. 

I am in Kansas only for a week this trip, to teach an ethics course in a colleague's class and to get the sale of my home organized.  I will be heading back to Arizona on Saturday, this time with my mother in tow.  Sadly, Lisa flies back tomorrow, but we will lunch with her in Flagstaff on the return.  My mom plans to listen to books-on-tape to kill time in the car.   Someone Mom's age would understand better than most how little our time on earth.  Killing time seems such an odd idea.  I am wondering whether I will be able to withstand the boredom of listening to someone read to me slowly.  This trip is something of a sandwich generation experiment

A year ago, I discussed the zen of my life on the road.  I'm about ready to de-zen and get settled.  All this moving around is bad for my tires.

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The next set of letters begins to address the question of whether "species" is a precise enough descriptor or solid enough category of entity to be bestowed with rights.  The question is raised by conservation biologist Jasper Kenter.  Picking up the gauntlet are David Harmon, a conservationist and exec director of the George Wright Society, and Mike Vandeman, who is working to create a wildlife habitat that will be off-limits to humans. 

From Jasper Kenter:

I thought that I would quickly respond to some of the points made here, being a conservation biologist...

First, as some of you may know, conservation biology is based on a number of principles, including the principle that biodiversity is good, but conservation biology as such does not make a single argument why nature might have intrinsic value. Second, it is obvious that in species conservation, stating that a species has an interest is indeed obviously anthropomorphic. Third, it is impossible to define a species. The biological species concept is a flawed one, as the criteria of reproductive isolation is simply not always workable, in plants more so than in animals, where there are many species which can interbreed with each other. What constitutes a species is totally subjective. It can in principle be argued that every individual constitutes a separate species, except where individuals are genetically identical. If one ascribes value to biodiversity at all levels, this does not matter, but since the species is an arbitrary and subjective level of biodiversity, why pick this level in terms of ascribing rights? Why not subspecies or genera? The assumption that species are somehow the building blocks of nature is an illusion, which is maintained because we need some sort of classification system for biological knowledge, and at least for animals the species concept at least makes some vague sense. While it is obviously possible to understand what is beneficial for the continued survival of a single population, it is impossible to determine this for all populations, and there is clearly a great deal of entwinement in the fates of populations - it makes more sense to talk about populations as they are the entities that actually evolve. Of course, it can of course in many cases be established with a fair degree of certainty that extinction of a species is anthropogenic, but this is not always possible. The background rate of extinction is probably around 9% per million years.

Finally, in terms of nature conservation, emphasising the rights of species may not be a great idea. The vast amount of resources that are spent on individual species (and I notice that all of Phil's example species were rather charismatic) may be a lot better spent on biodiversity conservation in general. So aside from the fact that species don't actually exist in any real sense, if you want to safeguard as many species as possible from untimely extinction, it makes more sense to argue for the intrinsic value of biodiversity in general.

Jasper Kenter

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From David Harmon:

Hi all,

As a conservationist (though not a conservation biologist) I feel I have to register my strong disagreement with Jasper. The fact that there are competing species concepts, none of which is absolutely definitive, does not mean that species do not have a real existence. In fact they do exist; it's just that species are polythetic entities, not monothetic ones, and therefore harder to define. There is a real ecological and biological distinction between, say, the grizzly bear Ursus arctos and the polar bear Ursus maritimus, or between the white pine Pinus strobus and the red pine Pinus resinosa (to choose a plant example), and the distinction is noncontroversial in conservation practice, if not in the far reaches of ecological theory.

I do quite a bit of work in the realm of biocultural diversity, comparing species with languages. For what it's worth, linguists have the same problems defining languages/dialects as biologists have in defining species/subspecies. The issues are the same. Yet all attempts to dismiss languages and species as something with no basis in reality have heretofore failed, and I would argue are doomed to fail, because (1) they correspond to real kinds in the real world out there and (2) they serve enduringly useful human purposes. Whether the latter says something about the natural basis of pragmatism, I don't know -- I would leave that to the professional philosophers on here.

Jasper is right to draw attention to the fact that the biological species concept -- which is the one most people think of when they think of species -- is, by itself, not an adequate characterization of the many modes of speciation. Most people have a conception of species that is too simplistic. And, as he implies, populations get far too little attention in conservation. But species are not arbitrary, and I for one see no compelling reasons why they could not be an entity endowed with rights.


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From Mike Vandeman

(At 11:57 AM 3/22/2010, Jasper Kenter wrote:

I thought that I would quickly respond to some of the points made here, being a conservation biologist...

First, as some of you may know, conservation biology is based on a number of principles, including the principle that biodiversity is good, but conservation biology as such does not make a single argument why nature might have intrinsic value. Second, it is obvious that in species conservation, stating that a species has an interest is indeed obviously anthropomorphic.)

I don't understand this comment. All living things, apparently, have interests, as indicated by their behavior, which is far from random. Since we have so much in common with them genetically (e.g. 98.6% in the case of the chimpanzee), I can't believe that only humans have interests. Certainly other organisms have interests. Maybe it doesn't make sense to say that SPECIES have interests, because species aren't well-defined entities and don't have a single consciousness.
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From Jasper Kenter:
Indeed. Individuals frequently show behaviour that is not necessarily in the interest of the survival of the species, because frequently intraspecific competition is greater than interspecific competition as competition will be more fierce with individuals that are trying to occupy the same ecological niche, let alone issues around sexual selection. An individual is apparently interested in maximum reproduction of his own genetic material, and in limiting reproduction of others in his population (unless in some cases when they are closely related). If my interests would correspond solely to that of genetic repoduction, than an ideal world I would be able to rid myself of all other men, whilst retaining as many females as I could feasibly reproduce with - this would maintain genetic variation between my offspring and thus adaptiveness, whilst maximising the reproduction of my genes. However, this scenario would obviously not be in the interest of my species. When we say that a species interest' is harmed, we usually mean that its constituent population survival chances are diminished. But this may mean that individuals within in the population have an increased chance of contributing genetically to the next generation. Obviously, all individuals share the interest of continued reproduction, but this does not mean they have a shared interest necessarily.

Then there is still the problem of evolution. Conservation biology stresses the importance of allowing continued evolution, not preserving species in a kind of preserve jars in parks. However, it is also highly problematic in terms of assigning rights to species. First, when a species evolves, it is not the same species any more. Second, evolution is instigated by environmental change, to which some species will be able to adapt and other won't (who will go extinct). So evolution is not necessarily in the interest of a species, because it is basically a gamble. So adding these things up, it is not that easy to determine what is in the interest of a species. It may be easier to determine what is not, but in this sense we are again talking about populations that are being overexploited or lose their habitat, not species.
Dave pointed out that there are many species which can be easily distinguished and that the species concept indeed serves our ends in various ways. But (1) that doesn't mean that designation of what constitutes a species is in many cases arbitrary or at least subjective and (2) even if there are real distinctions there are endless moral pitfalls. For example, take the culls of the American ruddy duck Oxyura jamaicensis in Europe, because it is hybridising with the Spanish white headed duck Oxyura leucocephala. There is no significant loss of genetic variation because of the interbreeding, just two species interbreeding successfully, with a loss of 'purity' in the white headed duck populations - this is a different situation to the many cases of alien invasive species displacing native species. For me, these culls do not make sense, except perhaps from a perspective of chauvinism.

We'll take this up again in a day or two...

FYI, I struggle with attributions for the photos I use.  Apparently, most bloggers and others who put up internet content do not bother to attribute.  Sometimes when I cannot find the info, I too succumb to using it without attribution.  I feel guilty, and maybe a tad bit nervous that the rightful owner will see my unattributed use - or worse, think of the use as something that ought to be renumerated - and come after me.  Nevertheless, the blog must roll on...
The first photo was taken by Greg Holmes, a blogger from Hutchinson, Kansas who posts amazing photos from his many road trips.  The second photo is by "Clearly Ambiguous," whomever that is.  The third photo is unattributed, but from a blog called David Zinger Employee Engagement.  The fourth photo is from a blog called The Happy Hotelier.  The final photo, just above, has no source.  Sigh....

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