Thursday, August 24, 2006

Deciding to keep rainbow trout

I just finished reading "Botany of Desire" by Michael Pollan, thereby making me the last person in existence to do so. What really struck me was the central metaphor of domestication as a bargain between equals:
We give ourselves altogether too much credit in our dealings with other species. Even the power over nature that domestication supposedly represents is overstated. It takes two to perform that particular dance, after all, and plenty of plants and animals have elected to sit it out. Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat. Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel—which obligingly forgets where it has buried every fourth acorn or so (admittedly, the estimate is Beatrix Potter’s)—that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.
I don’t like this metaphor; mostly because it embodies all the wrong instincts about how we should think of the environment. The bargain isn't equal. For one thing the selection pressure the plants exerts on man is not nearly as large as the pressure man exerts on the plant. Further, man’s long lifespan ensures that we respond to that pressure far slower than any domesticated plant (which ussually can yield a new generation each year). Representing domestication as a co-equal partnership is unspeak of the silliest kind.

If I had to propose my own metaphor I would say that domestication is something like a business arrangement: an exploitive one. After all, the apple and the potato didn’t choose to join us on our travels: we forced them to. We cleared fields of unsavory potatoes, replacing them with ones we could more efficiently exploit. And the second we found a more flavorful exploitable potato plant, we uproot our existing business partner and replanted again. Sure, we assist the plant in reproducing – but even Walmart pays it's employees enough to live. That doesn't mean they're getting a fair deal.

Of course, my metaphor has problems too. But it’s just as valid as Pollan’s. The reason I bother is to show that both metaphors make the same mistake: both assign independent moral worth to a plant.

I want to be clear. I’m not saying we have no moral obligation to preserve plants and animals. I’m just saying that those moral obligations are not inherient obligations. For example, we have a moral obligation to leave our children a livable world. Because of that we are obliged to preserve the world’s oceans and wildlife. But we certainly don’t *owe* the rainbow trout a place to live. If we decide that maintaining rainbow trout are beneficial to our long-term interests than we keep them, if not, too bad for rainbow trout.

The reason I take this position is because I think the concept of inherent moral worth of plant (and animal) species is just unworkable. We might take great lengths to prevent the native plants of Hawaii from being killed off by non-native species, but even those native species got there by invading the island and destroying the plants that came before. Similarly the cane toad might be annoying today but if – over the course of millions of years - it were to diverge into hundred of separate species found only in Australia, I think we’d rethink our current policy of trying to kill them off.

Now, I assume this is going to set off all kinds of bells and whistles in the heads of some of you. “But Tom! If the decision to preserve wildlife is based only on what it’s worth to people, won’t people make shortsighted decisions?” Why yes. Yes, they might. But the solution to that problem is to get people to make not make short-sighted decisions, not to pretend that god will get mad at us if we let Imperata cylindrical die out. Trying to fix bad judgment calls by inventing procedural grounds upon which to push your favored outcome is not a good way to ensure logical conclusions.

Update: Removing possibly over-the-top reference to slavery.


Paul said...

Nicely said. I only really disagree with a blanket rejection of inherent moral worth for animals; I tend to think that an entity has inherent moral worth roughly proportional to the sophistication of its consciousness.

Plants lack consciousness altogether, and most animal species lack any significant conscious states as well, but at the upper margins of evolutionary advancement I think you find species that have mental states that probably resemble our own in many morally relevant ways.

Since consciousness goes a long way, in my view, toward earning human beings inherent moral worth, I tend to think they do some of the same work in other species as well.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Fair enough. I'm obviously going to admit that (fictious) animals like yoda and frodo still count have moral worth even though they aren't human. It's a sliding scale.

Green Living Radio said...

Wow, nice post.

If interested Organically Speaking a Seattle-base website has released a conversation with Michael Pollan podcast (audio conversation). Interesting tidbits on farmers markets, CSAs, and more!

Some Podcast Show Note Questions:

Q) Why the price difference between conventional food and organic and how do we go about bringing down organic food prices?

Q) How can small local organic farmers remain local in a capitalistic system?

Q) What is the "Food Web" you briefly touch on in your book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

All the best,

Holistic Conversations for a Sustainable World

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I don't really cotton to anything with the term "holistic" in it. That's almost always code for "psudeo-science".

Rebecca C. Brown said...

The problem with only trying to preserve the most sentient beings (e.g., humans, non-human primates, elephants, the family dog, etc.) and poo-pooing dumb things (insects, trout, plants) is that the smart beings need the dumb things in order to live. Species (both animal and non-animal) is ecosystems are so intricately interdependent (in ways beyond scientific comprehension and prediction, most often) that fucking with one species will inevitably end up fucking with dozens or hundreds of other species.

I agree with your assessment of Pollan's metaphor for domestication--it's not equal at all! And I like your metaphor better.

But saying that we don't have an inherent moral obligation to preserve as much as we can. Unlike the invasive species in Hawaii, humans have forsight and a sense of right and wrong. Of course we have a moral responsibility to preserve habitats, including its species. You don't *owe* the rainbow trout a place to live the same way your neighbor doesn't *owe* it to you to not play loud death metal at four in the morning.

I'd like to say a lot more about this (the only thing I think about more than environmental issues is sex), but I just got back from 18 miles of hiking in Yosemite, and I'm tired.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

No! I'm not saying we should only preserve sentient beings. That would be ridiculous as you rightly point out. My point is that the reason we want to preserve dumb things is for the reasons you point out: smart things need dumb things, bio-diversity is an increadible scientific and medicinal resource, the unpredictable consequences of killing the smallest animal, etc. As I said, there are many reasons to preserve almost every species. But what doesn't make the list is the idea that it's just inheirently wrong to kill off a species.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

My comment about sentience was in response to Paul's comment.

And it is inherently wrong to kill off a species, in no small part because of the interconnectedness of species within ecosystems. But even if you could magically make one species extinct without affecting anything else, that's still morally wrong. It's inherently wrong to knowingly harm another conscious being, especially when that being has no recourse (which is the case for all non-human animals), and especially when you don't have a good reason for it (e.g., killing an animal as food, which is excusable in theory).

Paul said...

I think you're conflating a bunch of ideas, Rebecca.

First, if a species is interconnected to other species in an ecosystem, that is not a fact inherent to the species. That species could exist without that interconnectedness, and so its interconnectedness is an extrinsic, not intrinsic, property.

This is an important distinction because it was crucial to Tom's point - that the reason we want to protect non-sentient species is that they are crucial to the survival and general well-being of other, sentient beings. But they're not valuable all on their own. How could they be?

As for what happens when you remove that interconnectedness, I fail to see why non-sentient forms of life have any actual, inherent moral worth. I don't owe anything to a tree any more than I owe anything to a rock. Even if I protect a tree, it's not because I owe anything to the tree, it's because I owe something to, say, the birds that live in it, or the people that eat its fruit.

I can't tell from your comments whether you mean the statement:

But even if you could magically make one species extinct without affecting anything else, that's still morally wrong.

to apply to only conscious beings, or whether you mean it to extend to things like bacteria and shrubs. If the former, I'll buy, but if the latter, I think that's wrong.

Lisa said...

I can't believe Tom has been blogging for *however* long and only on the third blog keeps hitting issues I have something to say about. Tom, I agree that "don't kill animals because they help people" is a good argument, but disagree with you because I think that populations of animals and even plants do have inherent worth. I agree with Rebecca. (hey, again! The two of us can start our own blog called Girls *heart* the Environment... and Babies!)

Paul, I disagree with your claim that ecosystem interconnectedness is not inherent to a species. Other than morphology and genetics, environmental niche (ie interconnectedness with environment and other species) is probably the most important characteristic of a species. For example, the cone of the whitebark pine does not open to release its seeds. It is dependent upon Clark's Nutcracker to extract the seeds and cache them (by burying). Whitebark pine could not exist without the nutcracker; its dependence is intrinsic to it. The same goes for the fig and fig wasp: each species is dependent on the other for pollination and reproduction. Ecology tells us that these kinds of relationships extend to all living things. Thus, it's impossible to determine something's worth "on its own"--even a lowly shrub or bit of serpentine. It has worth because it is contributing to a system. It's not really about who owes who what, or who is worth the most in ecosystem services. I wouldn't think of myself as owing a tree its life, even if it did hold together the soil on the mountain above Hetch Hetchy, preventing a gigantic landslide from ruining EBMUD's drinking water supply. I'd think of my life as ecologically connected to the tree: mess up trees, mess up my life. Therefore, morally wrong to mess up trees. But of course, I am a big fat hippy.

Ok damn, now I think I have to go become vegetarian or something.

Lisa said...

Ok, and let me clarify. I don't think it's wrong to kill an individual tree or animal. I am talking about populations, and individuals matter in that they are what make up populations.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Paul, I'll concede that I'm conflating ideas; I usually try to keep points separate, but (again) going hiking at high elevations makes my brain go silly.

See Lisa's examples of species' inherent interdependence. There is no contextual vaccum. I don't think there is a single non-sentient species that doesn't serve sentient species.

Yes, I meant that killing off (or even killing individual) sentient and conscious beings is inherently wrong. There's nothing inherently objectionable about chopping down a tree that was grown in a lab for the express purpose of later chopping it down. Trees and rocks don't have feelings. I don't think that the earth has a soul or any of that crazy hippie shit.

Again, though, you can't chop down a tree or crush a bunch of rocks or redirect a river without screwing with a biological balance that took thousands to hundreds of millions of years to develop.

So you can buy my argument. What you probably won't buy, though, is my belief that all animals should be protected from feeling pain. I consider that a large facet of my morals. I won't say that in a life-and-death situation that I'd save a cow instead of a human; but I won't attempt to design a hierarchy of species' values.

Thanks, Lisa! I like reading things that you type. I'm less prone, though, to apply value to species (animal or otherwise) based on how they eventually help me in my life.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

All these comments are real interesting. I might write a follow up post on this.

Paul said...

I think you two are a little confused about the meaning of the words "inherent" and "intrinsic". There is nothing inherent or intrinsic about a thing being interconnected unless we define the thing, at least in part, by its interconnectedenss.

Species and populations aren't like that. We describe them, in many cases, as interconnected, but we don't define them that way.

The whitebark pine is a perfectly good example. Suppose some other mechanism begain opening the cones in a reliable way - a whole new bird, for instance. Or suppose they started opening all on their own. Would we say the whitebark pine had ceased to exist? In the latter case, it might depend on the nature of the change, but by and large the answer is "no"; but that's because interconnectedness isn't a definitional feature of whitebark pines, or any other population - it's all entirely coincidental. (Or, if the Nutcracker were suddenly eradicated; the pines might die, but they wouldn't all of a sudden cease to exist.)

This is an important distinction to make because I think what happens a lot - in this comment thread, for instance - is a conflation of the extrinsic value of something with its intrinsic value. It happens in talk about money, or about the law, or lots of other things. Tom's post, as I read it, was about precisely this distinction.

Your tree example, Lisa, makes precisely this point. Is messing up trees wrong? Well, that depends on the value of the trees in question. They might be protecting our drinking water supply - but they also might not be; that's what makes that their value extrinsic, not intrinsic.

A clearer example might be infectious bacterial pathogens which, as a rule, we have no qualms about trying to remove from the face of the earth despite their high level of interconnectedness with other species. And, really, even if they weren't pathogenic, we wouldn't grant them any moral status; we'd just ignore them, aiding or destroying them more or less incidentally and without consideration.

Paul said...

Sorry, I probably could have made that more concise.

Using the case of the pine tree, the test for inherentness isn't whether the pine wouldn't, in fact, exist without the Nutcracker, it's whether it couldn't exist, even in theory, without the Nutcracker. We can imagine situations in which the pine exists without any relationship to the Nutcracker and so, by that very fact, that relationship is not inherent to the pine tree.

Thinker said...

Paul, I think what Lisa and Rebecca are describing are known as symbiotic relationships among species. But one need look no farther than we humans to find those. Our guts are lined with huge numbers of microbe species without which we could not survive. Likewise, they depend on us for their survival. Take our species away and theirs disappears; take theirs away and humanity disappears.

Had they not been there at some early stage in our evolution, we might have developed a symbiotic relationship with some other microbes, but that would most likely have changed us in ways we can't imagine. The species we would have become would not be the one we are - and vice versa for the microbes.

Thinker said...

Oh, and as for the symbiotic relationship between Clark's Nutcracker and its Pine, take the Nutcracker away and a similiar species of pine might have evolved with different symbiotic relationships, but it would not be the same species we see now. So, I believe it fair to say that the species in the example Lisa gave could not exist without the Nutcracker.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Does that make sense, Thinker? I mean, if I took that Whitebark Pine and scattered the seeds by hand would you then start calling it by a different name? Would you call it a subspecies? How many generations of manual replanting would it take?
“But tom,” you ask. “Why are we even talking about this crazy far-out scenario?”
I’ll tell you why. Because if a thing can exist – even just theoretically – without property A, that property can never be said to be inherent.

It sounds like what we have here is a lot of instrumental reasons to value species which are very very strong and which are valid for almost everything (even – I would argue – things like polio virus). That means we have a strong, incredibly strong, moral requirement to keep these species and to do everything in our power to preserve them. But what that isn’t is an inherent reason to value these species.

I think this is mostly a problem with language. You're probably thinking of "inherent moral duty" as meaning something like "really really important moral duty we should be extra-double sure to follow through on" but that's not the way I'm using it. I'm using inherent to mean "a quality which is *definitive* not just *descriptive*". That the normal definition of inherent which you will find if you check out a dictionary.

I'm going to post more on this in a little while.

Thinker said...

A species is defined by the ability of individuals within it to reproduce offspring that are fertile. Apparently Whitebark Pine require Clark's Nutcracker as a key participant in this process. You as an individual might be able to plant a few seeds, and they might even sprout; however, you can't possibly replace the entire nutcracker species. Without that species, the Whitebark Pine species will die out, or mutate in such a way that it will become a different species with a somewhat or wholly different reproductive method.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

What you just wrote does not comport with the truth, Thinker.

"Apparently Whitebark Pine require Clark's Nutcracker as a key participant in this process."

No. No such thing is apparent. In fact it's pretty clear that if I so choose, I could plant these trees by hand and do so year after year. I could set up a foundation to do so forever if neccessary. Clarck's Nutcracker isn't "required" any more than earth is *required* to be habitable to humans. Just beucase two things are always found together doesn't mean they can't exist seperatly. You need to use logic and thought to determine if one requires the other. in this case logic and thought clearly indicate that the Clarck's Nutcracker is not "inherent" to the Pine in any way.

Thinker said...

You're making several untested assumptions Tommaso. First, who's to say that the only contribution the Clark's Nutcracker makes is cracking and planting. Perhaps in the process of planting, some of its saliva coats the seed, and this saliva, produced by this species, is required for successful sprouting. In that case (admittedly hypothetical), you could plant seeds from now until forever, and the species would still die out.

This is all by way of saying that ecological relationships are quite complex; and, to date, humanity's efforts to save endangered species is mixed at best.

Also, human institutions do not last forever. Can you think of a foundation that is more than 100 years old? I can't. This is a problem similar to one people have been struggling with in regard to the storage of nuclear waste. No one knows how to write a warning message that will last anywhere close to as long as nuclear waste will remain dangerous.

Thinker said...

I do agree with you when you say, Just beucase two things are always found together doesn't mean they can't exist seperatly. However, the opposite is not necessarily true, just because two things are always found together it does not mean that they can be successfully separated and continue to flourish. And, when you add that in the context of this thread we are discussing species, not individuals, that becomes even more true.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I fail to se how any aid provided by the nutcracker - regardless of how ingenious or subtle – could not also be provided by something else. Surely in theory the proteins that make up the nutcracker salvia could be synthesized out of base chemicals. In theory, whatever services the nutcracker provides can be performed by something else. This might not be the case for every species, but it’s pretty clear that’s it’s true for most species.

“This is all by way of saying that ecological relationships are quite complex; and, to date, humanity's efforts to save endangered species is mixed at best.”

It’s sentences like this that make me suspect that I’m not making myself clear. If I had made myself clear you wouldn’t bother reiterating something like this because you’d understand that I totally agreed with you. I agree that ecological relationships are complex. I agree that humanity’s efforts to save species have been mixed at best. Whatever policy you are proposing to save species, I’m behind you 100% of the way. We are not arguing over how important it is to save species. We are arguing over the definition of “inherent”.

“Also, human institutions do not last forever. Can you think of a foundation that is more than 100 years old?”

The Catholic Church, but I digress. We’re not talking about practicality. We’re talking about in theory. Species like the nutcracker don’t live forever either, so we don’t exactly need to prove infinite lifetimes here.

Let me pose it to you this way. Let’s say the nutcracker dies out on a Monday. Would you, thinker, feel comfortable saying on Tuesday, “the Whitebark pine no longer exists”? If someone came to your door asking for money to save the Whitebark Pine – money to pay people to hand plant the seeds – would you close the door in their face explaining “the Whitebark pine no longer exists”? Would you say “The trees we used to call Whitebark pine should be renamed so we don’t get them confused with real Whitebark pines.”? Would you bother getting into a discussion with someone about it?

I don’t think you would.

Yes, things are connected. Yes, the preserving the nutcracker is the easiest, quickest way to ensure the survival of the Whitebark pine. But the nutcracker isn’t *inherent* to the Whitebark Pine anymore than Berkeley bowl is inherent to me. I would think that this wouldn’t be too difficult a point to understand.

Thinker said...

On Tuesday I wouldn't say the Whitebark Pine no longer exists, I'd say it is doomed. From the perspective of evolutionary time, it would no longer exist on Tuesday. (Think of Carl Sagan's Cosmic Calendar here.) Would I try to save it, probably, even though the chances of success are minimal at best. However, if in trying to save it, I take time away from other endeavors that are necessary to save something else, what do we have - a cascading effect that leaves us all worse off.

I agree, the Catholic Church is nearly 2000 years old, but it is an institution, not a foundation. There are undoubtedly independent Catholic foundations (in the sense of business or charitable institutions whose missions are to better the world in one way or another), but they have to be more recent in orgin.

Thinker said...

We are not arguing over how important it is to save species. We are arguing over the definition of “inherent”.

I disagree. I think what we are arguing about is the difference between the relationships of individuals (either within or among species) and the relationships among species.

An individual Clark's Nutcracker may not be "inherent" to the life of an individual Whitebark pine, but the species Clark's Nutcracker is an inherent part of the life cycle of the species Whitebark Pine.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Thinker writes:

"On Tuesday I wouldn't say the Whitebark Pine no longer exists, I'd say it is doomed."


"An individual Clark's Nutcracker may not be "inherent" to the life of an individual Whitebark pine, but the species Clark's Nutcracker is an inherent part of the life cycle of the species Whitebark Pine."

So which is it: Are you saying that the whitebark pine can exist - even if for only a short time - without the nutcracker, or do you continue to hold that the relationship with the nutcracker species is an inherent part of the whitebark pine? It seems to me that your thinking on this issue is confused.

Thinker said...

I'm saying that individual Whitebark pines will live out their lifespan, but the species Whitebark Pine will be killed (become extinct) in the absence of the species Clark's Nutcracker.

Thinker said...

Maybe this will help.

Most of the cells that make up your body and mine are not the same ones that were in our bodies ten years ago. Those died and were replaced by successor cells (in some cases, perhaps several generations of successor cells). Yet, I hope we can agree that you and I both still exist.

In that sense I think we are like species. Individuals within each species come and go - replaced by successor individuals - yet the species still exists. Once the environment changes and individuals within a species can no longer reproduce, the species dies. Likewise, once our cells can no longer reproduce, you and I will die.

That is what I see happening to the species Whitebark pine if the species Clark's Nutcracker disappears. Individual pines will no longer be able to reproduce in sufficient number to keep the species alive. It will die out, or go extinct. Perhaps individual pines will adapt into a new species, but that will no longer be the Whitebark pine we know.

Thinker said...

To be more precise, what I should have written in the last sentence above is that perhaps mutant whitebarks will succeed in adapting to the changed environment, thereby becoming a new species, but that will not be the Whitebark that we know.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Now you write:

"It will die out, or go extinct."

But before you said that you would try to save the species. And you held out some hope that it would survive (though you called the chance of survival "minimal").

Why did you claim the chances were small but non-zero before and now pull a 180 saying the chances are exactly 0? How do you reconcile these two positions? Did you change your position? If so what new facts or reasoning lead you to change your position?

Thinker said...

What I said the first time was that I would probably try to save it. That was my optomistic side showing. Most of the time I'm pessimistic. In fact, I don't believe that in life there is ever absolute certainty one way or the other. The overwhelming probability is that in the absence of the Clark's Nutcracker, the Whitebark pine will go extinct. However, on the off chance that it is savable, it is probably worth an effort.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Ok, the point I'm trying to make is that for A to be an *inherent* property of B it must be *inconceivable* for B to exist without exhibiting property A. Since you admit that it's (possibly) possible for a Whitebark pine to exist without a nutcracker surely we must agree that the definition is not satisfied.

Now the whole reason I brought this up in the first place is because when you're trying to make the case for environmentalism your audience will generally fall into two groups:

1. People (like myself) who mentally operate consistent with the principal that we have an inherent moral obligation to preserve species.

2. People who don't accept that we have a moral obligation to preserve species.

The first group already agrees with you. The second group is not going to be swayed *at all* by arguing that they have a fundamental moral obligation they just don't know about yet. They are going to be swayed by arguments that say that preserving species is in the best long term interest of humanity. We shouldn't short-change the utilitarian arguments or short-circuit them by tossing "inherent moral obligation" on top.

Thinker said...

Since you admit that it's (possibly) possible for a Whitebark pine to exist without a nutcracker surely we must agree that the definition is not satisfied.

Again, I must make the distinction between individuals and species. While it is conceivable that an individual Whitebark pine would live out its lifecycle without the Clark's Nutcracker (after all infertile individuals of all species can survive a normal lifespan), it is inconceivable (given probabilities) that the species would survive in such a circumstance.

As for your political argument, I accept that most of us are anthropocentric, but that doesn't mean that we need to misrepresent science because of it. Moral arguments may have a place in political discussion, but they certainly do not in scientific debate.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Ok. It's clear I'm not getting anywhere with words and sentences. If we meet in person some day I can arm wrestle you for it or something.

Paul said...

Thinker, "inconceivable" does not have the same meaning as "extremely improbable".

Thinker said...

True Paul, but the Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Thesaurus lists improbable as one of the synonyms for inconceivable (when used in its third sense as implausible).

Thinker said... also shows improbable as a synonym for inconceivable.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Al Franken:

"When a few people--like me--pointed out that he hadn't said that he had invented the Internet, Ann Coulter responded: 'In point of fact, "create" is a synonym for "invent." Any thesaurus will quickly confirm this.' That may be true. But the very same thesaurus would show that 'friendly' is a synonym for 'intimate.' So, when Ann told the New York Observer that she and I were 'friendly,' they knew it was her way of claiming that we are lovers, which we most certainly are not. I am not currently having an affair with any Republican woman, but if I were, it would be with Maine senator Olympia Snowe, whom I respect for voting her conscience."

Zack said...

Tommaso is a science-plated steamroller up in here.

Aaron said...

This is, like, the greatest thread.