On the intrinsic value of species diversity

Photo by Kaura/Anni LeskeläLike I briefly mentioned in a previous post, I’ll probably soon start doing occasional gigs as a tour guide at a local zoo. Since it’s a reputable establishment, EAZA member and so on, it’s very concerned with environmental issues and conservation programs, and the justification for the existence of zoos as necessary reserves for endangered species is naturally part of the curriculum for us would-be guides.

Nobody denies that public enclosures are a stressful habitat for animals to say the least, and most often too small to meet the space requirements for healthy behaviour. However, it is also clear that the diminished populations of many of the species commonly kept in captivity are not going to recover without ex situ breeding programs, most of which need to be organised in zoos to secure funds and ensure collaboration. Donations are also needed to protect species in their natural habitat, and people are obviously more willing to contribute when they can go see the animals in real life instead of just watching YouTube clips.
In this post I’ll sort of outline my intuitions about whether harm caused to individuals is justified if it’s done in order to save a species, i.e. how much intrinsic value we should place on species diversity compared to other moral concerns.

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In environmental ecology as well as outside of it, we see the endangerment of species as one of the greatest global tragedies humans have caused, and we’re accustomed to judge an ecosystem’s state by how its populations are doing in numbers, never giving much thought to individuals and their experienced lives. This is understandable, of course: from our point of view, a single rabbit in our backyard might as well be any other rabbit (or not exist at all) and no one would care, but the entire species of rabbits couldn’t be a species of kangaroos (or disappear without warning), or we’d hopefully notice something is wrong. It would be unreasonable to expect people to automatically care as much about individuals they can’t even tell apart, whereas assigning value to a species is a pretty intuitive way to think about animals.

In addition, we’re simply not used to seeing most animals, even those that most likely have phenomenal consciousness, as individuals whose quality of life should matter. From that perspective the world looks unbearably horrible: denying the validity of this view and asserting instead the naturalistic, teleological alternative that everything in nature just works as it should is an effective and sometimes necessary coping strategy, but a weird and poorly supported conclusion for those who care about suffering. (This is a very interesting discussion, but also extremely complicated and way beyond the scope of this post, so go read some David Pearce instead.)

When ascribing moral value to species over individuals, we are making a mistake, I think. A species isn’t a sentient being that cares about its own fate or can be harmed like a creature with qualia and/or preferences: instead, anything that is done in order to protect a species is, on the object level, experienced by its members, which we in many cases indeed have reason to assume are conscious – and protecting a species from extinction does not necessarily protect its members from harm, as is well demonstrated by stress markers in captive animals. Moral judgments should primarily be concerned with conscious beings capable of subjective feeling (to simplify things a bit, I guess judgments made for other reasons are sort of in the realm of aesthetics).

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When environmentalists talk about biodiversity, often with an implicit focus on the diversity of species, they usually employ the following strategy: whenever possible, they will describe the importance of diversity in terms of the actual or possible instrumental value species have to humans and their wellbeing – the biosphere is more resilient when it’s more complex, and ecosystems can get messed up in totally unpredictable ways if a seemingly useless species goes extinct, and as a result we might lose important services like as yet unknown plants that could be used in medicine or even psychologically important biotopes and landscapes – and when this type of argument fails, such as when some species is with very high confidence judged replaceable in its ecosystem, they resort to arguing for the intrinsic value of diversity.

To be clear, I wholeheartedly agree with most of the above, and certainly with don’t destroy species if it isn’t necessary as a heuristic. With our currently lacking ecological knowledge and ability to model chaotic biological systems, our predictions are nowhere near good enough to allow us to ignore the extinction of species without probably causing something extremely regrettable along the way. For the instrumental reasons described above as well as a simple aesthetic preference for a myriad of interesting critters hopping around, I too think preserving biodiversity is important.

What I’m not completely buying is the claim that it should always be treated as intrinsically valuable, or that to such an extent that species are saved even at a great cost to individuals just for the sake of it, regardless of what our estimates are for their instrumental value and function as part of the system at large. I think this is one point where conservationalism as a movement gets a bit handwavey and poorly examined, ethics-wise.

Assume there is a subspecies of tigers that are, due to some psychobiophysical accident, in constant distress to the point of howling and writhing in pain (I hate these thought experiments too, but that’s ethics for you). This is the only obvious phenotypic feature that distinguishes them from, say, Bengal tigers, but it’s certainly an uncontroversial example of diversity. The population is already very small due to long-time human activity in their area, the species doesn’t serve any relevant ecological purpose that other felines in the area couldn’t take care of equally well, and without coordinated effort to save the species, it is likely to perish very soon.
Should we save this subspecies in the name of biodiversity even if the individuals suffer immensely because of this? My moral intuitions strongly suggest we shouldn’t. What if these were the last of the tigers left on Earth? No, not even then, although it would slightly hurt humans to whom the extinction of tigers is a sad and dreadful thought. What if it was some relatively uninteresting grayish-brown grass-eating whateverdeer¹, or some other creature people don’t find particularly impressing and culturally irreplaceable? Certainly not. Live, sentient creatures and their welfare should be respected above abstract categories.

So, it seems that even if species diversity might be valuable in itself at least as an aesthetic preference, it should easily be trumped by other values, such as not causing significant harm to individuals. The mosquitoes that spread malaria are an important part of many equatorial ecosystems, yet not many would protest erasing them if it could be easily achieved. At the very least, we would gladly wipe out the disease-inflicting Plasmodium parasites themselves, even if these protozoans also undoubtedly add to the species diversity of the area and certainly have an impact on the ecosystem. We destroyed smallpox and rinderpest because they harmed us and our cattle; this is arguably different from letting macroscopic organisms die, but it indicates that biodiversity isn’t a priority when the harm is obvious enough.

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Photo by Kaura/Anni LeskeläThe suffering-tiger-subspecies example actually has a milder analogue in real life conservation programs. The feline that has the hardest time thriving in our zoo is the Amur leopard, a subspecies of which there are only about sixty individuals left in the wild. It has been successfully bred in captivity, but often the specimens simply don’t adjust to a zoo environment and end up too stressed out to breed, usually exhibiting even more stereotypies than other big cats because even their minimum requirements for roaming space are pretty much impossible to satisfy in a zoo setting. Our guide guide explicitly states that these animals wouldn’t be kept in zoos at all if it weren’t for their rarity, so distressed do they tend to become in traditional enclosures even when they’re of a reasonable size for most other big cats.
What is the reason we strive to conserve this subspecies, then? Its natural habitat is almost completely destroyed, its prey animals too few to even support a large population – especially since it’s in indirect competition with the Siberian tiger, another endangered species that shares its niche. At what point does the amount of suffering endured by captive individuals cross the treshold where it’s better to just accept its extinction?

Bringing species back from extinction is probably going to be possible in the future, but also very expensive and impractical. Like any other human, I would be afraid of screwing up when there’s no realistic way in sight to undo the damage. Striving to conserve the species in order to not cause anything so irrevocable, then, is a reasonable approach and part of me would certainly also be hesitant to accept the extinction of this or any other animal.

But the distress of each captive leopard is also something irrevocable. Even if the individuals currently kept and bred in zoos around the world would eventually bring the population to a healthy level, and all the raised awareness and funds would help to save all that’s left of their natural habitat too, a tragedy would not have been averted.

Of course, it is the kind of tragedy humans are very bad at caring about. I feel silly writing about zoos when we have things like factory farming, a source of unfathomably greater amounts of animal suffering. Worse yet, this post glosses over the fundamental issue of how everything in nature pretty much sucks – living free doesn’t mean an animal is happy or content, just that it struggles in a different way, merely avoiding the one type of stress that’s caused by not being able to execute behaviour it’s adapted to execute. However, even if it’s plausible that for some animals living in captivity is actually less horrible than out in the wild, the alternative of individuals existing in zoos isn’t existing in the nature, it’s not existing at all (or in some cases, existing in a better setting, which is hopefully what many zoos seek to become in the future), so directly comparing these two options is fallacious, and the suffering of zoo animals should be seen as it is.

In conclusion, even if meat production and wild animal suffering are undoubtedly bigger problems, the latter especially is difficult to do much about right now so smaller issues such as our attitudes towards species conservation are probably at least worth identifying. Like I said, this post isn’t meant to be a particularly rigorous investigation or anything, but currently my intuitions seem to point against valuing species conservation as much as we currently do: no animals clearly unfit for captivity should be bred in zoos without extremely good reasons to do so, and zoos that keep animals they can’t provide enough space for are causing harm without sufficient justification – not exempt merely on the grounds of preserving biodiversity.

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¹ Not representative of author’s actual opinions on deer. Deer are the best.

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