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Evolution & Rethinking Conservation

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

Evolution and Rethinking Conservation

Talk about the natural world and conservation invariably makes a distinction between human beings and nature. Sometimes it is made explicit but, more frequently, it is implicit.

Conventionally, natural history is contrasted with other forms of history. A study of the development of ecosystems in the lowlands of southern England over the last 500 years is, for instance, thought of as fundamentally distinct from a study of human history over a similar time scale. Curiously, the activities of pre-stone-age man, together with our extinct Neanderthal cousins are generally conceived as natural.

Institutions have grown up in accordance with this distinction; the BBC has a natural history unit and a history unit, each concerned with very different things and largely independent of one another. In schools and universities, history is considered to be a humanities discipline, while biology and the environmental sciences are largely confined to science departments. The activities of human beings – if not seen as artificial – are certainly taken to be distinct from nature. Sometimes we act in its interests, but frequently, we do not. Even conservation organizations such as the RSPB implicitly make this distinction – their tagline “Giving Nature a Home” is an example of it.

Intuitive though it may be to draw such a distinction there is good reason to question whether we should. Human beings, like their pre-stone age ancestors and Neanderthal cousins, are animals that have, like other creatures, evolved to be in their present state. Our habits (such as creating political unions and developing societies) and inventions (such as the internal combustion engine) can all be seen as products of the natural evolution of Homo sapiens; they are, as such, expressive not only of the way human beings have evolved but of the evolution of the earth also.

Certainly, it is true that there are many things that human beings do which are unique. Wearing clothes is one such example; sophisticated systems of ethics are another. But, of course, many different species of animal have behavioural characteristics that are unique to them. Why then are we disposed to see our own unique behavioural characteristics as artificial, but treat as natural the unique behavioural characteristics of other animal species? The answer, I would suggest, is that such a disposition is, itself, a naturally evolved behavioural characteristic unique to human beings.

If we consider human behaviour and the products of it as expressive of our evolutionary heritage culminating in our current state, the question arises as to whether this has implications for conservation practices.

Not so long ago, Chris Packham controversially suggested that conserving the panda was a waste of money by arguing that “it is a very obvious totemic symbol that was picked on by campaigners for its cuteness and not its conservation value” (The Independent 01/03/2015). He went on to say that resources would be wisely spent if they were spread more equally amongst species that stood better chances of survival, irrespective of whether or not they are cute. Overall, Packham’s point was that it is wrong to lavish conservation resources on a single species just because they are endearing, in the same way that it would be wrong to withhold them from species that are unprepossessing. In the introduction to his book Birds of Britain and Ireland Paul Sterry makes a similar point in relation to how some people think about raptors such as Sparrowhawks and to our declining songbird populations. He says that “selective resentment of one predator on purely subjective grounds, and without scientific basis, is dangerous and ridiculous. Taken to its logical extreme, objecting to Sparrowhawks because they kill songbirds could lead, for example, to moth enthusiasts calling for the extermination of bats...” (Sterry, P. 2004. p.25)

Whatever is to be said about the respective positions of Packham and Sterry and those who oppose them, it is important to realise that neither are demanded by science. Such arguments are ethical as opposed to scientific in origin; they are answerable to that upon which we are disposed to place value. Sterry’s belief that it is wrong to discriminate against the Sparrowhawk is no more scientific than the belief that we should do so, provided both parties are sufficiently informed about the science. Both views are what we make of the science rather than being contained within the science itself.

Why not, instead, suggest that evolution has directed at least some of us towards a bias in relation to conserving those creatures that we find cute, or that sing in ways that we find attractive? These are, after all, natural responses that we have towards certain animals – even if, like polar bears, the animal is dangerous. Similarly, people are sometimes repulsed by perfectly harmless creatures such as the Giant House Spider.

Evolution is a complex thing. Like everything else, we (as Homo sapiens) are a product of it. That being the case, it seems strange to think of the activities of this species as somehow distinct from the natural world. Surely, how we act, and what and how we think (as individuals and collectives) are all dimensions of an ever evolving species that, in turn, can be understood as just one aspect of the general evolution of life on earth. On what grounds might we exclude certain human ways of thinking and acting from the evolution story? – Any such exclusion would, surely, be arbitrary and merely a further example of the ways in which Homo sapiens has evolved to think.

It seems at least reasonable to suggest that the evolution of the panda – its continued survival as a species – may be contingent upon our disposition for finding it cute and worth conserving on that basis. Indeed, one might argue that cat and dogs have already exploited such a disposition insofar as Homo sapiens has become inclined to take them into their homes. The survival of the fittest is, after all, dependent upon the environment in which a species finds itself – in the case of cats and dogs (and others), the fittest counts as being able to adapt to the otherwise constricting activities of other creatures (often human beings). The point is that what makes a life-form the fittest at any given time is not always dependent upon the way a particular species has evolved; sometimes it is contingent upon factors external to the individual evolutionary changes of an animal or group of animals.

So, if the panda survives because of our desire to conserve it on the grounds that we find value in preserving something cute, then that should be seen as an evolutionary twist in both our (human) story and that of the panda. Does this have any implications for conservation? Certainly, if one conceives of human actions as artificial, then reintroduction programmes are as artificial as the actions that, in the eyes of many conservationists, made them necessary. On the other hand, if we conceive of human action as just another aspect of the evolution of the earth, then the extinctions we cause, together with the reintroductions we may attempt, are as natural as anything else that occurs in nature. In addition to reintroduction programmes, consider the much talked about idea of bringing back the Great Auk, Woolly Mammoth and Passenger Pigeon from extinction through a process known as “genetic rescue.”

Working as a species protection warden (back in 2010), looking after a particularly vulnerable colony of endangered Little Terns on the Northumberland coast, I was struck by the amount of warden interference that was required to keep the colony viable. Firstly, although other less vulnerable options were available, the terns routinely nested near the strandline making their scrapes highly susceptible to high tides and storms (curiously, they nest near to non-tidal water bodies in mainland Europe but not in the UK). To negate these risks as much as possible, the nests were often raised on to sand-filled fish crates with a facsimile of the scrape being replicated to lure the adults back to their eggs. If the tides were very high and the pressure low, the eggs would actually be removed from the colony for the short high tide period and then replaced after the sea had receded. Secondly, there were predators – crows and kestrels would habitually raid the colony and attempt to make off with eggs and chicks; foxes and badgers would often attempt nocturnal incursions into the site for the same reasons. Various more or less effective strategies were employed to deal with these threats; hand clapping and cap-guns were engaged to limit the danger from kestrels and crows. Another involved a warden being continually present near the terns on the spit in sometimes sweltering heat. Throughout the night a warden was patrolling the colony in order to deter the fox and badger threats (along with possible human egg thieves). Is this conservation or farming?

As a conservationist it is necessary to care deeply for the creatures one is trying to conserve, but that does not negate the question of what one is doing as a conservationist. Without the measures taken to ensure the terns and their eggs are safe from tides and predators, it is highly likely that this colony would cease to exist. But if this is farming, then either such farming should be understood as further artificial human interference (whether or not it be because we think we are rectifying past destructive interference) or as just another natural way in which Homo sapiens interacts with other creatures on the planet. Perhaps, like the panda, our desire to conserve terns in this way is simply another chapter in the (natural) evolutionary stories of both species. If it is not farming, then we need a clear understanding of how farming (something frequently characterised as artificial) differs from conservation practices of this kind, given that in both cases, we are modifying the way the natural world would otherwise function.

Recently, Natural England decided to “issue a licence to control up to 10 Buzzards”. Whatever this amounts to in practice, the reason for it is to protect the 40 million+ Pheasant poults that are introduced each year for the purposes of being shot. To me, it seems strange to decimate a wild bird for the ultimate sake of contriving a situation that allows us to kill far larger numbers of an introduced species. Nevertheless, that some human beings are disposed to do this is an aspect of their behaviour that is as natural for our species as the desire (and accompanying moral distaste) of others to protect the Buzzards that are sacrificed for the sport. Accordingly, the political conflict that is expressed in such disagreements is internal to the social characteristics of Homo sapiens – something that, if we were describing human behaviour from the outside (so to speak), we would describe as a natural (if curious) characteristic of the species.

With this in mind, along with the fact that Homo sapiens is a naturally evolved species like any other, with certain unique behavioural characteristics and dispositions, it becomes difficult to maintain that conservation is something which re-naturalises what the artificial actions of human beings destroyed. Rather it is something that we are disposed to do; the disposition being an aspect of our evolved animal behaviour. Our conservation efforts – the ethical commitment that they illustrate towards life on earth – are sometimes in conflict; the thoughts of Packham and Sterry, for example, disagree with those who are disposed to prefer to conserve certain species over others and those, again, who care not a jot for the natural world beyond what it is able to do for us. We can all agree on what the science shows us – that Homo sapiens is responsible for the fight for survival that many other species now find themselves facing. But what we decide to make of it, whether we choose to conserve all threatened species or merely those we find endearing, or whether we wholly disregard the plight of other creatures beyond what they can do for us in terms of our own welfare, is an ethical (as opposed to scientific) matter for us to resolve. And in cases when we do decide to conserve, do we take measures that increase the chances of success beyond anything that would be possible without such interference (as in the case of my conservation of Little Terns in Northumberland) or do we only go so far as to ensure there are suitable habitats and food supplies and leave the threatened species to decide the rest?

However we choose to answer questions relating to conservation, whatever practical measures are taken regarding their realisation, and whatever moral and political conflicts arise as a result, it remains the case that all of this is a dimension of an incalculably complex evolution story.


Sterry, P. The Essential Photographic Guide to British Birds. HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. London. 2004.

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