Evolution and Environmentalism

Dylan Nicholson dnich at students.cs.mu.oz.au
Tue Sep 2 03:02:41 EST 1997


Evolution and Environmentalism

In a solar system somewhere in the universe exists a planet, one of the few
planets lucky enough to have been blessed with life. On this planet however
only one species exists, and the small variations in characteristics
between the individuals are not sufficient to seriously affect their
survival potential. Many millions of years ago, the planet had contained
many species, millions in fact, that had slowly evolved by natural
selection from a few special molecules that could reproduce themselves.
Eventually this process lead to a species that had survival capacities well
beyond that of any other single lifeform, and this included the ability to
think consciously, abstractly and intelligently. For many thousands of
years, members of this species depended on other species for food and
shelter from the physical environment, and thus could not afford to destroy
them. Occasionally other species were destroyed, sometimes with little
effect, sometimes with disastrous effects on their own species, but they
learnt from these mistakes. In time however, they learnt how to create food
and construct shelters without needing the help of any other species, and
so slowly but ruthlessly destroyed all the other species, which were of
course competing for the same resources they needed to survive. Eventually
evolution was carried to its ultimate point, and that one single species
had outsurvived every other, and had sole accesses to the resources needed
to survive. The population grew until no more members could comfortably fit
on the planet (and the few other planets they had managed to settle) but
there was no disease to curb the numbers, and no need or drive for
evolution to continue. As mentioned, the members of these species were
highly intelligent and had developed sophisticated social structures, which
all helped guarantee their survival. But not a single member had questioned
whether it was wrong to destroy all other life on the planet: they thought
it only a logical, and indeed inevitable consequence of natural selection.
They were the ultimate fittest species, or more correctly, the ultimate
combination of the fittest genes, and had succeeded in fulfilling the
programming of their genes to survive.

Far away, on another planet, a similar thing was happening. Evolution had
spawned a huge variety of life, quite unlike that on the former planet, but
again, a particularly fit species had evolved, with the ability to think
consciously, abstractly and intelligently. It had not yet completely
severed its reliance on other species for food and shelter, and could not
afford to destroy them completely. It was certainly well on the path, and
was already almost capable of surviving without other species. However this
species had evolved a characteristic that their parallels on the previous
planet had not. This characteristic made little evolutionary sense, but
evolution is constantly subject to mistakes, most of which are punished
harshly and do not survive, but some, which have sufficiently little effect
on survival capability, and when coupled with something else that has a
very strong positive effect, are allowed to slip through the net. This
characteristic was the appreciation of the beauty of nature for its own
sake and the capacity to feel emotionally attached to members of other
species. It was especially strong in many individuals, who felt strongly
that the destruction of other species was a bad thing, a position in part
supported by the fact that this race had also made a number of bad mistakes
in destroying other species it could not quite yet survive without, which
had resulted in many deaths. Oddly enough however, those who felt strongly
against destroying other species saw this as destroying nature, when of
course it was nature that was encouraging them to destroy other species, as
nature is simply a collection of species trying to survive as best they
can. Thus to them preserving nature meant halting the elimination of other
species, but of course this was a highly unnatural thing, as these species
were simply competitors for the same resources.

Of the above two stories, the former is, of course, fictional, while the
latter is, of course, the story of our own planet, Earth, and development
of mankind. Mankind is indeed ruthlessly destroying its competitors in an
effort to survive best, just as its genes are programmed to do, and just as
those in other species are. It is almost unquestionable that if this does
continue, this perfectly natural process, then the ultimate outcome will be
the complete extinction of all other species, mankind being the final
victor in the survival race.

So why it is that so many of us are unhappy with this prospect, and indeed
the current move down this path? No answer is obvious, but it seems likely
that it is a mixture of reaction to the mistakes we have made that have
rebounded on us horribly, and the fact that many, if not most people are
capable of being moved by nature, appreciating its intrinsic beauty, even
parts of it that make no, or even negative contributions to our survival
chances. These are both selfish reasons not to destroy other species, but
they should be sufficient, provided we are prepared to interrupt nature.
Because this is what it will take to stop the process which evolution is
all about, and mankind is only another species trying to survive the best
it can. But it is a special species, capable of uncountable things no other
species comes close to, and the ability to appreciate other lifeforms for
their own sake is quite possibly the sole thing that will help us go
against natural law. Evolution has no morals, no rightness to it, not
really even any inevitably. If people are happier when they have the beauty
of other species to appreciate, even if it slightly lessens our survival
prospects, then perhaps there is a good reason to halt the destruction of
other species. At the present moment, there still is another definite
reason, which is simply that we cannot quite afford to live without them 
although it is perfectly chemically viable to manufacture food from raw
non-living materials, we cannot do it has efficiently and effectively as
other species (especially plants), and will still need other species to
provide materials for shelter and to help hold together the soil that we
stand on. Incidents of crop die-out, timber shortages and soil erosion even
in urban areas are sufficient evidence for this. 

But in accepting this, environmentalists must accept that environmentalism
is not natural, and that preserving other species for their own sake is a
contradiction of any species' natural behaviour.

I have tried to write this objectively without giving away too much on what
I believe myself, but, for the reader's interest, I will outline my own
feelings on the matter:

Mankind has evolved by natural selection, and therefore is basically
programmed to do what it can to survive. At this point of course most
creationists will part with me, and probably see little point in my whole
argument.
Evolution is not morally right or wrong, and there is nothing wrong with
going against it, given that we have been gifted with the ability to make
that choice, but provided we don't make ourselves extinct in the process,
which would be pointless (contrary to the beliefs of some radical
ecologists, who perhaps constitute a strong form of evidence against
evolution, but also against creationists!).
I would not like to live in a world with no forests, no bushland, no birds,
no animals, even with no annoying insects or disease, and even if we as
humans needed none of these things to survive. Furthermore, I would not
like to think my children might live in such a world.
Mankind would be better off in potentially smaller numbers but each member
happier. Evolution does not encourage happiness of individual species. If
we want it, we must achieve it for ourselves.

I hope something in the above makes you think about your own position, and
I'd certainly love to hear any opinions you have. All of the above was
really little more than a flash of inspiration while riding home from uni
(my little bit towards preserving other species) and I'm not even sure how
I really feel about it myself yet!

Happy thinking,
Dylan





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