Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, major figures in the American wilderness preservation tradition, photographed by Underwood & Underwood.
Ming, an ocean quahog clam, was dredged up from the Icelandic shelf in 2006 at the ripe old age of 507, by scientists looking for long term climate records for the north Atlantic. Original estimates of the clam’s age put it a century less than that (which still earned the title of oldest known animal), but a fresh analysis has established the older age with a high degree of confidence.
Scientists are quick to point out that there are probably other clams at least as old still living in the ocean, and probably others have been served in chowder. And Ming does not begin to compete for oldest known organism, if we include plants, microbes, clonal organisms or colonies. There are a surprising number of plants with ages given in millennia. Still, this is the oldest animal we know of, and we killed it (albeit unwittingly) for science. Ming’s demise raises two interesting questions in my mind: how does age relate to value, and how deeply connected is killing to science?
Most of us would not hesitate to kill an ordinary clam for food, or to collect it as a specimen if we thought any interesting scientific question could be answered by it. Why should the clam being old change that? This reminds me of the incident around the felling of a tree called the “Mother of the Forest,” which caused a great outcry and boosted a growing preservation movement. If the concern were only care for the organism killed, we might be troubled less by the death of older individuals, because they had already lived full lives. So why are we bothered more? It has to do with a sense of sublimity or reverence at things which exceed the scale of our own existence, either in size or age. I suspect the death of Ming would be treated as a much bigger deal if the clam had grown to a great size as well, and giant sequoias several centuries old are bound to get more reverence than a 12,000 year-old bush in the desert. But relating age to size only helps so much, for we seem just as much at a loss to explain why big animals deserve more respect. All we can say is that, for better or worse, we do respect size and age. Perhaps it is enough justification that these organisms help us put our own pride in check.
The other question Ming raises is about science and death. I once interned at the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection. Such collections are extremely important to scientific work in evolution, ecology and taxonomy. If you have only been to zoos, you might think this would be a similar place by the name. Wildlife collections have more in common with The Far Side comics than with zoos though; there is row after row of shelves with jar after jar full of pickled creatures. Don’t get me wrong, I loved working there and would gladly do it again. There is nothing quite like spending an afternoon up to your elbows doing inventory in barrels of rattlesnakes. And if you have ever looked at a field guide with a range map, you have relied on the data these specimens provide. Some of the creatures died of other causes (roadkill, for instance) and were scavenged for science, but most were killed for the collection. There is increasing discomfort with it, but this is our mode of operation.
Thoreau started down this path, helping Agassiz establish the collection at Harvard, but he recoiled when he found that the work had produced in him an immediate desire to kill any rare creature he found. Gandalf’s rebuke of Saruman is apropos: “he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” Seen this way, as a thirst for knowledge that trumps compassion and reverence, science appears to be a species of lust. But understanding the climate is not a feather for our vanity, it is of real and urgent importance. Would you refrain from dredging a sample of a clam bed for such a project, if you knew that you might kill a penta-centenarian clam? While they didn’t aim to kill the oldest animal, I think they may have know that was a risk they were taking.
Apparently many animals are scared of power lines because of how they flash like fireworks. Caribou keep miles away, which is a problem for the whole migratory thing. What? Never noticed the power-line fireworks display? It happens to be in the ultraviolet spectrum, which most animals besides apes see just fine. It is an interesting thought–most animals can tell if the power lines are live just by looking at them.
But just as interesting is that animal behavior with fairly obvious causes could remain a complete mystery to us, because we don’t look at the world through their eyes. Now this is kind of hard to do, but we could do a much better job with a little imagination. We know a lot about what color spectrums are visible to different creatures and what pitches they can hear. We know about echolocation, Jacobson’s organ, motion-sensing freckles on alligators and electrical sensitivity in fishes–all sensory fields foreign to most of us.
When we ask if an animal is camouflage or aposomatic, we need to ask for whom. I suspect that while the coral snake is aposomatically colored for bird predators, with their broad range of color vision, and humans, it is fairly well camouflaged for any predators that are red-green colorblind. And who knows what may have bright warning colors in the UV spectrum but look perfectly drab to us humans.
Understanding animal behavior and our influence on it will require us to put more effort into understanding the other ways of perceiving the world.
Maybe one of you can write a Google Glass app for ecologists, with settings to render visible the appropriate spectrums for different animals.
I posted sometime back about the controversy over designating critical habitat for the Jaguar in the southwestern US. The Jaguar has been listed as endangered for decades, and the Endangered Species Act requires designating critical habitat for all endangered species. But the Fish and Wildlife Service refrained from designating habitat on the grounds that we don’t have any jaguars. Occasionally one comes over the border, but the vital habitat needed for preserving the species from extinction is clearly south of our border.
Well, it is done. Over seven-hundred-thousand acres in Arizona and New Mexico are now to be managed as Jaguar habitat. What will this mean in practice? Can the Jaguar serve as an effective umbrella species in absentia? Will this inevitably lead to a reintroduction attempt? And is that good or bad?
The ecological benefits of predator restoration are immense. And the aesthetic value of wilderness is completely transformed by the presence of things that can kill you–the landscape goes from serene to sublime. Indeed, the very word wilderness comes from the Old English wildeor, meaning “wild beast.” But are there limits? Are there predators just too dangerous to keep around? What do you think?
When the moon is a thin crescent, sometimes you can dimly see the rest of the moon. This is because the moon is illuminated by light reflecting off of the earth. If you were living on the Moon, you would see the earth go through phases, waxing and waning, like the moon does when viewed from earth. In fact, the phases would be inversely correlated, when the earth is roughly between the moon and the sun, we see a fully illuminated moon, but the earth would appear all shadowed to a lunar observer. When the moon is between the earth and the sun, we see a mostly shadowed moon, but the earth would be fully illuminated if you were looking at it from the moon. You would be able to walk in the dead of night and see where you were going, because the full earth in the lunar sky would cast bright earth beams, that is, lots of earthshine.
As an environmental philosopher, I like to use questions from ecology to test ideas of ethics, theology and what it means to be human. So the idea of being illuminated by light reflecting off the earth is a metaphor to good to pass up.
And as someone living in Appalachia, I like the idea of earthshine in another way as well.
In the news this week is a Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to delist the Gray Wolf from endangered species protections entirely. At one level, this makes fine sense: populations are established in the northern Rockies and in the western Great Lakes region, meeting the original goals of the recovery plan. But how few of our woods and fields that once knew the animal is it yet restored to. And how many are the foes of its recovery, pushing hard for the removal of federal protections and eager to reduce the wolf to ecologically insignificant numbers once more. The state of the wolf recovery in the lower 48 has been but a hopeful, promising bud of Spring, which some seek to nip ere it flowers. The success of the Gray Wolf restoration has been a token of hope for the rewilding and restoration of America’s ecology. The Red Wolf still flounders in the East, living mostly in captivity. The Mexican Wolf restoration falters on the brink. From the mountains of Maine to the Sierra Nevada, there is work yet to be done in wolf restoration. The northern Rockies hear the howl again, but it is not a tenth of the former range. Shall we having once put our hand to the plow now recoil from it?
But the cattle, it is protested, the wolves are killing and eating our cattle. (Isn’t that what they are for?) Nostalgia for the wolves should not trump economic sense. But what are the cattle doing on our public lands anyway? Cowboy welfare and its below cost public leases, these are not a higher use of the land. That too is but a nostalgia for a day gone by, and an inferior nostalgia at that. The wolf is viable and can be recovered. The ranching economy (at least for cows) maybe not. Besides, the wolf is a better steward of the land and keeps it from overgrazing. Cattle have destroyed too much already in the arid western landscapes. Let the cattle leases expire and make way for the return of the Bison. They know how to live with wolves. Once they provided meat for many nations, and it could be so again.
But what shall we say for the wolf? Public commenting on the proposed change opens today. Wolf populations are such that they could have long-term viability with reasonable state management, but there is immense pressure at the state level towards a policy of near extermination. Taking the political climate into account, continued federal protections appear necessary for the packs to flourish. Reasonably large numbers at present won’t secure the species from intentional policies of extermination. The wolf is endangered and should be protected as such, until we learn to be peaceable and accepting neighbors.
We must say farewell to Ronald Dworkin, a great legal and philosophical mind who died this month. I learned from reading his work a great deal about the richness of legal reasoning and its deep (and to some baffling) connection to moral reasoning. The public rhetoric about the role of judges as applying law and not writing it and the cries of “activist judge” trade in such thin caricatures of judicial and legal reasoning by comparison. Fortunately his insights do not die with him, and there is hope that we can build on them toward a better understanding of what a legal system of justice and integrity really requires.
I’ve known for some time that birds can play. I first read a clear defense of this in Jack Turner’s Abstract Wild, where he describes pelicans riding the thermals of thunderstorms. I think Turner’s work is also where I read about gulls that drop into the jet of air coming out the black of planes getting ready for takeoff; after getting blown across the tarmac, they fly back for another ride. And a student once recounted to me the sight of a crow dropping a feather high in the air, doing flips around it as it fell, catching it before it landed and then doing it all again. He asked me cautiously whether that could have been play, or whether it must have been some sort of mating display. I’m not sure why the idea that birds play really needs a defense—few doubt that dogs play. We are disturbingly begrudging in our willingness to admit any richness in the interior lives of animals. Perhaps some feel that the joys of human life would be more secure, if animals would just be little instinct driven robots. Not me—joy does not derive its value from scarcity.
The idea of storm-chasing pelicans and thrill-seeking gulls warms my heart. But now I have to admit that bird play is not all fun and games; sometimes it is downright mean. The new book Gifts of the Crow, reviewed here, describes jungle crows on an island in north Japan picking up dry pellets of deer shit, and “deftly” wedging them in the deer’s ears. Hilarious, yes. Also deeply wrong. Can you imagine if there was a species of wildlife that like to play pranks on us with our own excrement? Camping would be a little less enjoyable.
But what does this tell us about the inner life of crows? This has to be play of some sort; how could playing games with deer scat possibly have a selective advantage or function? The appeal could just be the challenge of a moving target that must be snuck up on. Or it could mean that crows are able to take pleasure in tormenting the deer. Scratch malice (and creativity) off of the list of things that separate us from the other animals.
The New York Times just held a contest to write an essay defending the ethical permissibility of eating meat. The contest is announced here and the winner and finalists can be found here. Unfortunately, I was neither a finalist nor the winner. (Neither was my colleague Hal Herzog, whose entry was rather different than mine.)
All of the finalist essays were well written and interesting, but I find the winning argument a bit annoying: It will soon be ethical to eat meat, because lab-grown hamburgers will hit the market this fall. Technology rescues us with a better substitute, and our separation from the land and our local economy grows even greater. I wonder if the results would have been different if vegetarians were excluded from voting.
My Entry: Eat Meat
A thoughtful, moral diet is an essential part of a thoughtful, moral life. How we eat makes up the lion’s share of our connection to the land and our fellow creatures. There are many disturbing problems with meat as it is currently produced and consumed—cruelty, disease, exploitation of the poor and pollution among them—none of which do I defend or excuse. I defend the eating of meat.
The problems associated with carnivory are both conceptually and practically separable from it. The carnivore need not be cruel to the animals eaten; from the Quran’s prohibition of sharpening the slaughter knife in front of the animal to the hunter’s pride in making clean kills, meat eaters have traditionally condemned cruelty. Several now epidemic diseases are associated with the consumption of animal protein, such as heart disease, obesity and some cancers, but they are not linked equally with all forms of meat eating. A bison steak or a roll of sushi is not the nutritional equivalent of a fast-food cheeseburger. Confined feedlots and slaughterhouses may trap vulnerable people in subhuman work and poison the land around them, but when I shake the hand of my farmer, I support a neighbor in an enriching, sustainable, local job.
Refraining from meat, on the other hand, is not without costs and hazards of its own. Despite the improved health experienced by some vegetarians, a good third of lapsed vegetarians return to meat for reasons of health. Soy, often eaten by vegetarians in highly processed meat alternatives, is usually grown in large monocultures with the heavy use of chemical herbicides. On top of the direct environmental impacts of such land use, expanding soy production is also a significant contributing cause to rainforest destruction.
The abolition of meat eating would also constitute a great impoverishment of cultural diversity. The elimination of so many traditional cuisines might be compared to the extinction of languages, which proceeds at a frightful pace. Not only would the cuisines be lost, however, but also all the professions and practices tied to them: ranching, shepherding, hunting, fishing and more. Some of these, such as ranching and hunting, are particularly celebrated and promoted in North American society for their moral value. Dealing with life and death on the farm or accepting the disciplines required for successful hunting are said to build important character traits. And this is not implausible. The hunter who waits all day only to pass up a shot that might not be clean exercises a great deal of patience and the ability to stick to principles when no one is watching.
Eating meat also offers the chance to more effectively combat cruelty and unsustainability in mainstream animal agriculture. A minority which drops out cannot effect the market in the same way as a minority that buys selectively. A market for humane, sustainable animal products allows for the creation of alternative practices and business models, which by their very existence give lie to the necessity of business as usual. More than avoiding poor land uses, we can drive up healthy uses; putting more land into bison ranching is an important step toward the restoration of our western prairie ecology. This approach also effectively increases the size of the dissenting minority, since many who are not willing to abstain still show a preference for humane or sustainable products.
So the best practice—in terms of cultural heritage, alleviation of animal suffering, stewardship of the environment and possibly your health—is to eat meat, but to do so mindfully, preferring higher standards to greater quantity.