The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Nature of Responsibility

In his blog post titled Rim-Laid Eggs Gary Patton writes about the black robin. This endangered species was saved from extinction by a breeding program starting with a single female bird.

This heroic effort had one side effect, though. As explained in a National Geographic article, many females laid eggs on the rim of the nest, where they were not properly incubated, and failed to hatch. Faced with a decision:
The team repositioned the ones on the rims... Under normal circumstances, natural selection would have quickly weeded out the alleles (versions of a gene) behind the behavior...
Gary argues that:
... by interfering with the normal rules of natural selection, the recovery effort increased the predominance of a gene that led to the rim-laid egg tendency, and that meant that the recovery was actually establishing a genetic characteristic that would guarantee species failure in the long run.
... It seems to me that it is a cautionary tale, and that the story of the black robin should make us think again about our often presumptuous ideas that human beings can properly run the natural world.
Gary seems to imply that interfering was a presumptuous, bad move. But as the article states:
Without this move, it’s unclear if the species would have made its dramatic recovery...
Clearly, survival for the not-so-fit is better than no survival at all! Saving the rim-layer's eggs was the right call. This isn't a cautionary tale, it's a victory thanks to the hard work of Don Merton and his team of conservationists.

The true cautionary tale is about a bird allowed to become severely endangered in the first place. After all, the closer a species is to extinction, the harder it is to save, and the longer its recovery.

The genetic origin of rim-laying does demonstrate the importance of genetic diversity within a species. Now that the population has grown to a safer level, natural selection will quickly reduce the rim-laying allele back to a normal level. If the non-rim-laying allele had been lost, the black robin would have been in real trouble. Luckily, no such recessive disease thwarted the recovery effort.

It's wrong to say human beings should not run the natural world. First of all, it's poor philosophy of science to erect an artificial distinction between homo sapiens and their environment.

We're a part of the natural world, and the case for conservation is made much stronger as a result. When a species goes extinct due to habitat loss or hunting, it proves we are connected. The same goes the other way around. When our game animals or fish are hunted to extinction, we starve. When we vanish biodiversity by clear-cutting a million acres of rainforest, some potential medical boon, some scientific discovery, and much beauty is lost forever.

We are part of nature as nature is part of us.

Like Don Merton and his team, we have decisions to make. That doesn't mean we must become presumptuous masters of some imaginary world of nature. The "let them rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky" anxiety comes strait out of Genesis. This Old Testament thinking only makes sense if you believe man is meaningfully separate from nature.

In the bible, mankind has a soul, setting him apart from the beasts. In nature dualism, human beings lift themselves out of nature with their culture and technology. This is less supernatural, but also false. It's also inherently dangerous.

A dualist way of thinking leaves the door wide open for discrimination. If you're not of my religion, then you're going to hell. If you're not of my race, then you're inferior. If you're not of my species, you're going extinct. Gary is clearly not one to discriminate like this, but his philosophy leaves us impoverished when dealing this type of discrimination.

Now, I'm neither a member of PETA nor a vegetarian. I don't think all species are the same, and therefore deserve equal treatment. I just think setting aside human beings as dual to the rest of the world is wrong and ethically dubious.

Don Merton wasn't playing god by choosing to save the black robin. His program was conducted from compassion, not some biblical imperative to run the natural world.

He had an opportunity to save a species from extinction, so he took it.

That's the nature of our responsibility. To nature.

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