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Evolution and Environmentalism

Joan Marie Shields jshields at taurus.oac.uci.edu
Fri Sep 5 12:27:25 EST 1997

jshields at taurus.oac.uci.edu (Joan Shields ) writes:
>>1. That we can survive at the expense of every other species on Earth - 
>>wrong, other species ARE some of our most important resources.  Can we 
>>make everything we need from inorganic components?  Perhaps, although 
>>the quality and the qualitity we need are beyond our present and forseeable
>>future technology.  The amount of energy and equipment it would take to 
>>produce the necessary amino acids - even the oxygen that we breath - would
>>be enormous.  We would have to reproduce the activity of plants and animals,
>>do you have any idea what the energy requirements would be to do that?

Dylan NICHOLSON <dnich at cat.cs.mu.OZ.AU> wrote:
>Yes, but given our rate of technological development, I would still see it as
>inevitable. Plants are grossly inefficient at creating food (although not by
>the current standards of our own energy production, except perhaps nuclear
>power). One can go further and note that with the development of genetics we
>will have the capacity to genetically alter ourselves not to need other species
>(I slightly doubt curiousity is a strong enough rival of our moral qualms to
>lead to this, however).

Uhm, what exactly do you know about genetics?  What shall we create food
from?  Inorganic material?  Possible but like I said, you're talking about
a great deal of energy being used - why go to all that trouble when we 
already have a much more enery efficient system?  From a practical and
purely survival issue - it makes no sense to destroy a system that provides
us with all our needs at a much lower energy cost than to move to a system
that will cost far more in energy and materials.  It makes no sense.

As for genetically altering ourselves - I'm afraid that this sort of 
massive genetic alterations will, if ever, be so far in the future - 
far futher than we can imagine today.  There is so very much we don't 
know about our own genes - compared to what there is to know we know
almost nothing.  I know that it might seem like we know a lot, but we
don't.  We have no clue half the time why things happen - we have ideas
and theories - not all of them end up panning out.  We've barely 
scratched the surface when it comes to genetics.

>>2. That humans are the most powerful species.  Personally, I'd say we've
>>got competition, especially if you use the ability to survive as a basis.
>>Rats and cockroaches are pretty adaptable - not to mention microorganisms
>>like bacteria, viruses, parasitic protozoa, fungus, algae, etc.  Hey

>This I agree with, and indeed if the species that do exist in the most
>multitudinous numbers were capable of severing THEIR dependence on other
>species then humans wouldn't have a chance. But it would seem unlikely that 
>any of those species have the capacity of doing this.

Any more than we as a species have the capacity of completely severing our
ties to other species.  Did you know that there are flora and fauna growing
in and around your body?  Bugs that eat the dead skin on your body - ones
that help you digest foods, help free up nutrients for you to absorb.  
You are a veritable zoo of microorganisms and you depend on them rather
heavily for your comfort and survival.

>>how many times have we tried to beat back mosquitos?  There are a whole 
>>slew of drug resistant microbes that cause diseases out there - and their
>>ranks are growing.  Sure, we come up with new drugs but they're becoming
>>immune to them faster than we can keep up.  Sure, we now have a possible
>>means of defeating those mechanisms but will the bacteria stand still long
>>enough for us to employ them?  Kind of like demanding a charging bear
>>stand still so you can load your musket and shoot him.  Not likely.

>Evolution will ultimately be slower than technological development, and, while
>I certainly don't encourage it, I believe ultimately we WILL be able to combat
>all other species to the point of extinction, from which they cannot return by
>mutation. We only have to shoot the bear fast enough.

When will be able to combat them?  We haven't been able to do so yet.  With
all of our technology and medicine and knowledge we've managed to erradicate
one disease and only one: small pox.  We've put a tremendous amount of
energy and effort into erradicating other diseases - with some we've made a
little headway but with others, many others, we've taken steps backward.

As for evolution being slower - microorganisms reproduce at a much faster
rate than we do.  How long has vancomycin been used and how fast have some
strains managed to find a way to counter it?  I think you underestimate
the world around you.

>>We, like it or not, are an integral part of the ecosystem - along with
>>birds and blue whales and earthworms.  

>I agree entirely, and I hope most humans DO like it (I wouldn't want it any
>other way, as I've said). But I still suspect that with the ability to survice
>w/o the rest of the ecosystem, our genes WILL tend to encourage us to destroy
>it. Fortunately we have already proved capable of suppressing to a greater or
>lesser degree the tendencies of our genes, and I believe we have a good chance
>of doing so in this case.

It's not a matter of liking or disliking the ecosystem - we have no choice,
like it or not we are part of the ecosystem, an integral part of it.  We
cannot escape it because it is part of us as we are part of it.

As for the tendancies of our genes - sorry, but you and your genes are not
two seperate entities - they aren't exactly whispering in your ears and 
trying to tell you what to do.  How can the two be seperate?  Who exactly
are your genes trying to manipulate and to what ends?  Is there a grand
scheme they're following?  Are genes evolving in a definite direction?
If so, why and how?  

>The weakest part of my case as I see it is that because we have always needed
>other species to survive during our evolution, our genes also predispose us to
>a certain amount of 'biophilia', a love of nature that counterbalances our view
>of other species as 'competitors'. It this is truly genetic, then the situation
>is even better than I predicted in the previous paragraph, as we have got some
>instincts that will help us stop destroying the rest of the ecosphere.

We do have an instinct for survival - we also seem to have an instinct for
deluding ourselves and a long tradition of looking at ourselves as apart
from the ecosystem rather than as a part of the ecosystem.  We are human,
we are selfish and we are egotistical.  It's not so much a "love of nature"
but a need of nature.  We are not, as Moore wrote, islands - we are part of
the continent.

>Unforunately, I doubt this will kick in strongly until we start putting our own
>survival at a real immediate risk, so I still hold that we need to consciously
>govern our own behaviour to go against our basic programming. Environmentalists
>are still absolutely correct in doing what they can do save the rest of nature
>(well, most of them, I have a hard time with those who propose wiping out
>humankind), but maybe they need to be more aware of just how tough a task it
>will be.

Out of curiousity - do you have anything to back any of this up with?  Not to 
come off as too harsh but I think it would be a good idea if you did some
more reading about genetics, ecosystems and the energy costs of creating 
organic materials from inorganic sources.  It might give you a better idea
about where some of us are coming from.  

Joan Shields       jshields at uci.edu       http://www.ags.uci.edu/~jshields
University of California - Irvine                            
School of Social Ecology   Department of Environmental Analysis and Design
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