Why save species?

February 28, 2011 • 6:48 am

Over at the New York Times Opinionator website, writer Richard Conniff has been doing a pretty interesting series of columns on the early naturalists’ search for new animals and plants, “The Species Seekers“.   Yesterday he wrote his final installment, “How species save our lives.”  Conniff makes a good point, and one not widely appreciated:  nearly half of the drugs on pharmacy shelves are derived from naturally occurring species, either directly or via synthesis of compounds identified from nature.  Conniff mentions aspirin (from the willow tree), the cancer drugs vincristine (from the Madagascar periwinkle) and Taxol (from the yew tree), ACE inhibitors for reducing blood pressure (from snake venom), and the immunosuppressant rapamycin (from a soil fungus).

And indeed, it’s worth our trying to publicize these facts, which aren’t widely known, as a powerful argument for conservation.  As Conniff says:

Since this is the final column in this series about how the discovery of species has changed our lives, let me put it as plainly as possible:  Were it not for the work of naturalists, you and I would probably be dead.  Or if alive, we would be far likelier to be crippled, in pain, or otherwise incapacitated.

Who knows how many potential cures lie undiscovered in tropical rain forests, or have already vanished?  And yet I find myself vaguely dissatisifed with “selling” conservation in only this way.  (Medical advance is the only conservation benefit that Conniff mentions in this final column.) Yes, maybe it’s politically expedient to concentrate on the ways that new species could make us healthier and (for the drug companies) wealthier.  But what about the more intangible benefits of nature: the simple fact that it’s there, that it provides us with solace and wonder, and that so much we of what we know about evolution and ecology rests directly on studying animals, plants, and microbes in the wild.  How much poorer we’d be had Darwin not acted as unofficial ship’s naturalist on The Beagle!

As I always tell my classes, humans are wondering animals, and scientists and naturalists help feed that wonder.  But we can’t do it without nature: otherwise we’d be reduced to studying cockroaches and our own intestinal flora.  The study of nature tells us where we come from and to whom we’re related, and provides a myriad of tales—true tales—to feed our imagination.  I’m going to talk about some today in my evolution class. The lecture is on the phenomenon of mimicry, in which animals and plants evolved their appearance, scent, and behavior to resemble something else, either to protect themselves from being eaten or to hide themselves from prey.   Here’s one of my slides—some katydids of the genus Mimetica, from South America, which have evolved to resemble leaves, complete with stems, veins, and even “rotten spots” (click to enlarge):

And here is a jumping spider (on bottom of leaf) that mimics army weaver ants (on top).  Note the astonishing resemblance, with the spider having evolved color, body shape, and fake eyespots to resemble those of the ants.  It even holds up its front pair of legs (notice that the spider has eight legs, in contrast to the ants’ six), to look like antennae.  The spider’s appearance almost certainly evolved via natural selection to give it protection from predators like birds, who avoid the swarms of ants.  It’s amazing what that blind, mindless, and unguided process can do.

Evolution and ecology have given us thousands of tales like this—and they’re not just isolated anecdotes, for they feed into powerful scientific theories.  It was the accretion of anecdotes, after all, that inspired Darwin to propose his theory of evolution by natural selection.  And work on mimicry, in the late 19th century, provided some of the most powerful and telling evidence for natural selection.  Let us not forget that the early naturalists weren’t much interested in the practical or medicinal value of species, but were inspired largely by that driving force of science, simple curiosity.  It is that curiosity, expressed in both author and reader, that has rightly made Richard Dawkins a best-selling author.  His books are about the beauty and marvel of evolution, and barely say a thing about its practical benefits.

So much of our interest in nature is selfish: how can it make us richer or healthier?  And thus the practical appeal of conservation.  But it would have been nice for Conniff to at least mention that nature is a huge and engrossing book of true stories, and a page is ripped from that book every time a species goes extinct. What right do we have to defile nature’s library?  Does our evolved big brain, and our ability to overcome nearly every other species, give us the right to wreak whatever havoc we wish on nature for our own benefit?  What about those defenseless frogs, trees, and beetles?

Morality is evolving over time, so that many people now see it as immoral to cause needless pain in animals.  We don’t use chimps in medical research if macaques will do, and won’t use macaques if mice will do.  People are rising up against battery chickens.  It would be nice if we could extend that morality to ecosystems as well, recognizing that they have a right to exist simply because their species are precisely as evolved as we are.

48 thoughts on “Why save species?

  1. Why do we do anything?

    Ultimately, it is always to shape the universe to our own liking.

    I happen to prefer to live in a universe with a modest-yet-healthy human population where one can easily enough find luxuriously broad expanses of diverse and healthy wildlife. Being able to wander alone through a huge field of wildflowers in a saguaro forest that extends as far as the eye can see is a wonderful luxury, one that we would be fools to deny ourselves.

    Yet, when one considers all the saguaro forests that have been destroyed to make way for urban sprawl, our foolishness becomes all too apparent.



  2. Great thoughts, Jerry! What’s always mystified be about “bioprospecting” is that it works at all. Mimicry is one thing, because it is driven by evolutionary fitness, but biologically based drugs don’t make any sense to me! If it weren’t already true, I would never expect so many compounds in nature to have such useful effects on us so distant from their adapted function. The same goes for design principles borrowed from nature: I’m still amazed that the blind process of evolution, with all its phylogenetic constraints, can trump our imagination and our thousands of years of intelligently directed technology and culture the way a gecko’s foot inspires new adhesive technologies.

    What do you make of it? Are their physiological or biochemical reasons to expect plant secondary compounds designed to harm some organisms to be beneficial when intelligently applied to our physiology? Does the inspiration we get from biomechanics reveal some kind of cognitive bias in our own naturally-selected creativity? To me, these are intriguing evolutionary mysteries, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is something simple I’ve overlooked.

    To me, this is a great evolutionary mystery.

      1. It might have something to do with the fact that biotic macromolecules are highly familial and are synthesized from relatively few precursors. If one considers the sheer number of slightly different macromolecules throughout Eukarya (are there any prokaryotic- or archaean- derived medicines?), it’s probably not even statistically true that “so many” compounds have external, non-adaptive effects.

  3. “So much of our interest in nature is selfish”

    *exactly*. I, too, recognize that many medicines are derived from this or that rare rainforest species, and that their discovery has made people healthier in general and drug companies richer in particular…but, where is the humility before the grand tapestry that is Life of which we are but a thin thread, hardly noticeable, woven in around the border?

    “a page is ripped from that book every time a species goes extinct. What right do we have to defile nature’s library?”

    Thank you for saying so eloquently what I have felt since I was a child.

  4. >how can it make us richer

    Although there may be cures in some undiscovered species, the notion that lucrative cures are out there, and that this is the chief motivation of naturalists, is having deleterious effects. When field biologists are seen as “bioprospectors”, then research is quickly shut down, as everyone asks, “How can it make us richer”– everyone wants a piece of the action. But in an astronomically large proportion of cases there is no action, and so species go unstudied.

    1. Yes – well said, & it makes me both depressed & angry. We have to therefore load the natural world with the additional aesthetic values we give to art, in order to give it proper weight.

    2. If, as I seem to recall reading in an article in Wired Magazine last year, Big Pharma is now even bigger financially than Big Oil, then you’d think there would be loads of money for drug companies to, say, buy up / rent huge areas of remaining rainforest (in countries where it is threatened) for the purpose of bioprospecting. And, as a nice service to science and the rest of humanity, they could/should then allow unaffiliated researchers access to the purchased / rented land for, say, studies in ecology and evolution. Two birds – for-profit medicine, and, more importantly for science overall, conservation – could be killed with the single stone of bioprospecting.

  5. “Biodiversity is thus signally valuable because of its intellectual interest. A proactive role in its conservation is required because it is irreplaceable – extinctions are forever. Arguments from intellectual interest may seem unconvincing to those who demand immediate pragmatic virtues in the narrowest sense of immediate utility. This attitude is typical in the United States, where, for instance, the accepted legal defense of a controversial sexually explicit work of art is to claim that it has redeeming social value, not that it is, after all, a work of art. Nevertheless, the best argument for the conservation of biodiversity remains its intellectual promise. Narrow pragmatism would lead to a devaluation not just of biodiversity but of the entire scientific enterprise, if not of every intellectual and aesthetic aspect of human culture. We should not be embarrased to defend the importance of our intellectual interests and pursuits. All the comforts of life that are traded in the marketplace are ultimately the products of human intellectual life, of our culture, and very often -but obviously not always- of that part of our intellectual culture that we identify as science. Thus even narrow pragmatism dictates the attribution of a high value to intellectual life and science; without them, pragmatism would be useless. Janzen was correct to note that biologists have a professional imperative to conserve biodiversity. Nonbiologists share that imperative to the extent that they value biology as a field of endeavor that should be pursued in any society that can afford it. Moreover, there is nothing that says that nonbiologists cannot share the pleasure of the knowledge that the professional pursuit of biology generates. The world is interesting. We enjoy knowing about it, though some of us may cherish this knowledge more than others. Finally, for many individuals, not limited to professional scientists, scientific knowledge of the world, the sense that we are beginning to understand our surroundings, deeply affects our most basic attitudes towards all aspects of life. Science has a cultural value beyond the technology that it provides.”

    Sarkar, S. 2005. Biodiversity and environmental philosophy, an introduction. Cambridge University Press.

  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limulus_amebocyte_lysate

    “Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) is an aqueous extract of blood cells (amoebocytes) from the horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus. LAL reacts with bacterial endotoxin or lipopolysaccharide (LPS), which is a membrane component of Gram negative bacteria. This reaction is the basis of the LAL test, which is used for the detection and quantification of bacterial endotoxins.”

    LAL is important in drug discovery too. But in order for LAL to be discovered, somebody out in the field had to have done research on horshoe crabs!!!

  7. “Conniff makes a good point, and one not widely appreciated: nearly half of the drugs on pharmacy shelves are derived from naturally occurring species, either directly or via synthesis of compounds identified from nature.”

    This is probably a pretty hollow justification for species preservation. Most of the plant derived medicines were based on folk remedies developed over millenia of pre science (in other words we had an a priori reason to be looking there). Much of that low hanging fruit is gone now. Expecting to go through many thousands of species in obscure places just in case they *might*, for their own purposes, have evolved a compound helpful for human health is pretty much a long shot (not a whole lot different from purely random tests). We have reached the point where it is much more payoff in reverse engineering diseases and targeting them with products that may or may not have a ‘natural’ analogue.

    The new-agers tend to have a belief that plants hold the magic potential for everything good for us just because they’re natural, but evolution suggests there is no reason to expect that.

    1. The new-agers tend to have a belief that plants hold the magic potential for everything good for us just because they’re natural, but evolution suggests there is no reason to expect that.

      Every time I encounter somebody who expresses such a sentiment, I invite them to substitute poison oak for toilet paper; roast marshmallows on oleander sticks; and make a nice pot of hemlock tea.



    2. I think you should spend some time reading about natural products chemistry. A very significant number of new drugs are, in fact, derived from natural products, even today:


      From the abstract: “…in the area of cancer, over the time frame from around the 1940s to date, of the 155 small molecules, 73% are other than “S” (synthetic), with 47% actually being either natural products or directly derived therefrom. In other areas, the influence of natural product structures is quite marked, with, as expected from prior information, the antiinfective area being dependent on natural products and their structures. Although combinatorial chemistry techniques have succeeded as methods of optimizing structures and have, in fact, been used in the optimization of many recently approved agents, we are able to identify only one de novo combinatorial compound approved as a drug in this 25 plus year time frame…”

      1. The point is NOT that there are not useful compounds in biological sources. The point is that there is no special advantage in going through thousands of species, cultivating them, then trying all sorts of stuff with their components, looking for something that (just by accident) is useful for human health. Expecting to be more successful that way has a degree of mysticism to it.

        We’re better off targeting chemistry that may or may very well not exist in nature (or would be irrationally hard to find if it were) using intelligent direction.

  8. Leopold’s “land ethic” comes to mind, a cultural check to how we treat the land. He likens it to slavery. It was once widely accepted to treat another man as property, but over time we’ve developed a set of ethics that disallow slavery and many other actions against other humans – NOT because freedom and equality are financially advantageous but simply because of ethical constraints (based mostly on empathy, I imagine).
    Aldo says we need the same process for our treatment of land (ecosystems). He said this back in the 30’s when the Colorado river still ran to the sea. I’m not sure he’d be impressed with our progress.

  9. Jerry: Glad you are enjoying the column. I do of course talk about the less selfish aspects of the species story, both elsewhere in the NYT series, and in my book The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth. Your readers might like this excerpt:

    In pursuit of new species along the coast of Alaska, naturalist William T. Dall experienced all the usual adventures, among them a long frigid trip in a sealskin dory across open water, trying to avoid being crushed by waves loaded with cakes of ice.

    He gave his family an eloquent explanation of what motivated him, and by extrapolation most other species seekers: “There is a singular delight,” he wrote home in 1866, “in taking these delicate and almost microscopic animals and putting them under a strong glass, seeing the tiny heart beat, and blood circulate and gills expand, counting the muscles and blood vessels and almost the tiny disks that form the blood and to know that you are the first that has penetrated these mysteries and are perhaps the only one who ever will, and that all your notes and drawings and observations are so much solid knowledge added to the power and grace and beauty of the Infinite.”

  10. What right do we have to defile nature’s library? Does our evolved big brain, and our ability to overcome nearly every other species, give us the right to wreak whatever havoc we wish on nature for our own benefit? What about those defenseless frogs, trees, and beetles?

    I was with you up until this point. I’m not sure what you could mean by “right” other than reference to some objective moral standard, which I know we agree doesn’t exist. Humans have the same “right” to wreak havoc on nature for our own benefit that every invasive species ever known has. And what about those defenseless frogs, trees, and beetles? Aren’t they just the same as the 99% of all species that ever lived which are now extinct? The ones that were ravaged by natural dangers, including – what must have been in many cases – predation by and competition with other living things?

      1. Not that there is anything wrong with being a parasite. There is the pragmatic approach–let’s not kill our host! Or the humanist approach–let’s make sure there is enough host for all.

        But there is something more implied here when we mention rights: perhaps another axiom of morality along the lines of “don’t do unto others” but applied across species rather than individuals.

        About the pragmatic side though: there are measurements of the health of an entire ecosystem based on genetic diversity in it, and the health of any species may correlate with the health of the whole. This question calls for a lot of science to be done.

      2. I agree with Tim in the view that as there are no inherent values in the world nothing has any value – yes I am that sort of a nihilist – so nothing really matters, however I find it hard to believe that Tim does not give some things value & I reckon that respect for life is deeply rooted in us, & in that I am with Yokohamamama. Leave things as you would hope to find them.

    1. If we were purely disinterested observers, then there’d be no difference in principle between living species about to go extinct and those that went extinct ages ago. But we’re not disinterested; we depend on the global ecosystem for our survival. So it would be foolish of us to treat living species as if their extinction didn’t matter, since for all we know the loss of that tree or that frog (or sufficient numbers of such losses) may tip the ecosystem into a new stable state that doesn’t include us.

    2. I agree with most of your responses. Of course there are practical considerations that should shape our decisions regarding nature. And of course we’re the only parasites that know we’re parasites. And of course we have a natural curiosity about and appreciation for nature. I’m all for protecting nature and biodiversity, for a number of reasons.

      But Dr. Coyne spoke of “rights,” which makes no sense. There are no objective rights, so any argument based on appeals to what rights we do or don’t have is pointless. And I find it especially surprising that an evolutionary biologist would talk about “defenseless frogs”, as if life on this planet – for all species – were anything other than “nasty, brutish, and short.”

      1. There’s the philosophers’ “right” and then there’s the colloquial “right” that we all understand as a verbal trope. In this piece of popular writing JEC was employing the latter. It’s shorter than saying “how can we justify, knowing what we know…?”

        1. Using the word “justify” is still begging the question.

          If you ask me to justify my desire to continue eating whale meat until the last whale is dead, you are already implying that there is something wrong with my desire, such that I have to justify it. The entire question is whether there is something objectively wrong with it, or, if there is not, how we can mediate the differences in our subjective values regarding whale meat.

          Asking one to “justify” their preferences, or asking what “right” they have to behave a certain way is already assuming that their values are objectively wrong – which is, itself, wrong. I believe that people have different values and that something good can come of discussing them, but talk of rights is tendentious, and it asks people to assume one premise too many.

  11. I also have a gut aversion to selling conservation based on speculation that there are surely even more things to come that will have been extracted from non-humans to the benefit of humans.

    But as long as a list is being compiled, a couple more recent FDA-approved items should be added:

    1) Byetta/Exenatide, a synthetic glucagon-like peptide based on the natural version from Gila monster saliva, and which is now in use by type 2 diabetics not yet on insulin maintenance (with the happy side-effect that weight loss is frequently experienced.

    2) Prialt, a peptide originally isolated from cone snails that specifically targets N-type Ca++ channels and is in use for management of chronic pain. (It apparently works in cases where morphine is no longer effective, and is not addictive.)

    It’s pleasing (to me, anyway) that each emerged from initial basic research and not bio-prospecting efforts.

  12. Quote:
    “The diminishment of nature is the diminishment of man.
    Extinction is the negation of the possible; it creates poverty in
    the mind. Our capacity to experience, to imagine, to contemplate,
    erodes with the erosion of nature, and with it we forfeit
    piecemeal — landscape by landscape, site by site, species by
    species — the freedom of mind which yet we cherish as ultimately
    the greatest feature of our human identity. This is not
    to say that we should never seek to provide justifications for
    conservation based on precise, measurable benefits to mankind
    at whatever scale. It is, however, to say that we should
    also and primarily have the courage and honesty to assert that
    the reason biodiversity matters is because it confers on us an
    imprecise, unmeasurable and immeasurable well-being that is
    located in the spirit rather than in the wallet.”
    Collar, Nigel (2003) Beyond Value: Biodiversity and the Freedom of the Mind. Global Ecology and Biogeography 12: 265-269.

  13. psst -The jumping spider in the picture is with, and mimics, not army ants, but weaver ants (subfamily Formicinae: genus Oecophylla).

    This seems a good example of a species that is probaby of litte value to us, other than it is such an utterly cool example the the power of natural selection! (But, I would welcome any arguments that are otherwise.)

  14. Another reason to preserve species is concern over the world we leave our children/future generations. We are already well into the latest mass-extinction event, stemming primarily from our own actions; we being the most pernicious invasive species on record.

    I, for one, get a little annoyed reading about the great herds of bison that used to populate the North American plains and the endless flocks of passenger pigeons–how I would have loved to witness them! And that was just so very recently. Heck, most of the North American large animal fauna was gone well before Europeans arrived.

    We also might care to remember that, though evolution might be able to “repair” ecosystems to an extent, it does take a very long time. Or that we are the only “experiment” like us that we know of in the universe–meaning that it requires more than a tiny bit of hubris to keep destroying things with impunity.

    1. Those horizon-spanning herds of bison and sky-filling flocks of pigeons were not natural or sustainable and did not exist in such numbers before Columbus. They were temporary symptoms of an ecosystem drastically out of balance following the near-extinction of its top predator: [i]Homo sapiens[/i]. It was the crash of the human population of the Americas (due to introduced diseases) that allowed the explosive expansion of prey species observed by European explorers.

  15. I only found out recently, by Googling “salt solutions in abortion”, that some abortions use a salt solution to slowly poison the baby, which takes up to 24 hours to die. Torture in the womb.

    To oppose torture, there is no need to debate when human life begins.

    Can’t we all oppose all cruelty, whether to animals (there is immense cruelty in the food industries) to babies in the womb, to prisoners, or to anyone?

    1. There is no torture during non-emergency abortion more than a severed finger can be tortured. At abortion the fetus have no connection between pain nerves and its brain to be.

      In a similar manner a fetus can’t “die”, because it isn’t capable of independent life in the first place. There are no “babies” in wombs, as you would know if you had studied the biology you try to comment on.

  16. One big missing ingredient is personal responsibility. How many of us are willing to give up any product/service that stresses the natural world? Reduce our energy consumption? Buy less stuff? Live in a smaller dwelling closer to our work to eliminate the need for hours spent in traffic? Buy a smaller car? Spend more on a more environmentally friendly product?
    Thousands of decisions are made by millions of people that aggregate to environmental degradation. Industry and gov’t won’t ask for sacrifice.
    It all becomes personal.

  17. Old thread, but good subject. FWIW I agree with Coyne that there are values in nature besides immediate (food, clothing, buildings, furniture, medicine, et cetera), especially in science and its ROI. There is also the prospect of a larger morality; but only if we want to, we are already shouldering moral obligations as no other species.

    But this:

    Does our evolved big brain, and our ability to overcome nearly every other species, give us the right to wreak whatever havoc we wish on nature for our own benefit?

    No, our existence does, as for every other species. There is no inherent, absolute, moral in nature.

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