What about the ugly animals?
I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that you won't see a "Save the lampreys" bumper sticker any time soon.
(Page 2 of 2)
Both options are perilous. First off, determining the lake's preindustrial condition requires a lot of guesswork, and because many of the native strains have vanished, the best we could hope for is a rough approximation of the original ecosystem. As for attempting to create healthy salmon and trout stocks, we simply don't know enough about ecology to be confident that we won't end up knocking things further out of whack, as it seems we have already done.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But either way, the lake's future is no longer determined solely by natural forces. As with every other ecosystem on the planet, we have switched the lake from autopilot to manual and grasped the controls with our own – fallible – hands.
Which raises a deeper question: What is wildlife for? Should we focus only on protecting animals that benefit humans in some way, or do all animals – even nasty parasites like the lamprey – possess an inherent worth?
If it's the former, then why bother protecting inedible, un-domesticable animals like polar bears and snow leopards? Is it simply because we derive satisfaction from knowing that we share the planet with them? Do the uncharismatic animals – the wasps, worms, and slugs of the world – get the shaft simply for being insufficiently beguiling to human eyes? That strikes me as weak.
But if animals have an inherent worth, then how do we justify killing them in such large numbers? Why is it that our society goes to great lengths to save whales, but then casually slaughters millions of pigs – animals whose cognitive capabilities are thought to exceed those of dogs. Is there a moral distinction between wildlife and domestic animals? If so, what's the basis of this distinction? And where do pets fit in?
Ultimately, inquires into the telos of natural phenomena tend to lead to bizzare conclusions. A century before Darwin's observations exploded the notion that nature has a directed purpose, the French philosopher Voltaire brutally satirized this worldview in Candide. In the opening paragrahs, the eternally optimistic Dr. Pangloss, explains to the callow title character why everything in the world is just so:
"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best."
In other words, statements about nature's "purpose" tend to be self-serving. The horse wasn't made to fit a harness for a cart.
Perhaps instead of asking what nature is for, we should be asking ourselves what we are for. Like it or not, the future of the natural environment is entirely up to us. It is a reflection of who we are. As the now-world weary Candide says at the end of Voltaire's work, "Let us cultivate our garden."