Monday, September 8, 2014

On The Hierarchy of Species

Amazon's Gold Box deal today (for a few more hours) is BBC Earth documentaries. After immediately purchasing the Blu-ray of Planet Earth for the awesome price of $17.50, I went to look into the other titles to see if there was anything else we wanted to pick up for the kids (or ourselves; Planet Earth is primarily for me). We decided to pass on Earthflight because of a past experience with Winged Migration (that's another story), and on Life because we found some of the promotional material for it a bit troubling. The series was filmed as part of the BBC's celebration of Darwin a few years back, which isn't inherantly problematic for me, but what caused me to write off owning it (or at least buying it sight unseen) was a "Tree of Life" I found connected with the film put out by Open University. From their description of using a tree as an analogy for life:

"It reflects an outdated assumption that evolution involves progression from 'primitive' to 'developed', from 'simple' to 'complex' and hence from 'inferior' to 'superior', with the human race at the top. Modern evolutionary theory carefully excludes such value judgements and views evolution as more like tangled undergrowth than a branching tree."

I've been encountering this attitude frequently in recent years - the idea that humans are equal to other animals, at least to some degree. The argument against this I typically hear is theological, but I'm not even going to go there, because I think this concept is even scientifically flawed.

There is no other sentient life form that has the capacity to impact every other living thing on Earth to the degree that humans can. Not even close.

Dolphins do not have cars and factories that are destroying habitats of jungle and polar animals. E. coli does not, as far as we know, make a conscious decision to harm its host when ingested. An individual grizzy bear may be superior, in the sense of having power over, an individual human, but humans in the aggregate absolutely have power over grizzies in the aggregate.

You may be thinking this is a matter of semantics, and you may be right. The reason this bothers me is that framing the debate in this way seems to put people in two camps: those who believe that man has dominion over all creatures and therefore can exploit them for any purpose, or those who are "egalitarian" and refuse to take any semblance of authority. I don't hold with either of those views. The problem with not acknowledging the very real ways in which mankind has superiority over the planet is that it's also an implicit lack of acknowledgment of the greater responsibility we have compared to every other species on the planet. Having the greatest power to destroy life also gives us the greatest responsibility to protect it, and downplaying the former by necessity also downplays the latter.

This is especially unfortunate given that, in my experience, the people who are putting forth this "humans as peers" model are trying to achieve exactly that type of conservation, but the people they're trying to convert aren't listening because they think the humans as peers model is ridiculous. If the goal is to bring those who think it's OK to trash the planet around to the idea that environmentalism is vital, the "brotherhood of species" concept just isn't going to cut it. There is certainly a place for misanthropy and "moral superiority" conversations - but biology isn't it. And that's not the view I want my kids to have of the animal world. Hidden Kingdoms seems like it'll do a much better job of that.

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