Vox analogizes invasive species with human immigrants

November 30, 2021 • 9:15 am

I suppose it was inevitable that “invasive” species—species that take over a new area, often far from their native habitat—would be compared by the “progressive” Left to human immigrants, and thus the impact of these species minimized or even lauded. That’s the conclusion you can draw from the headline at the uber-woke Vox website below.

Actually, the article isn’t all that bad, as it does point out that some invasive species destroy ecosystems and must be controlled; other species are moving due to climate change; draws a distinction between true invasives and those deliberately introduced (see Wikipedia’s list of 100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species; the name “alien will alienate many here, lacking only the adjective “illegal” to enrage the woke); calls attention to the cruel way many invaders are destroyed (poisons can cause an agonizing death), and raises moral issues that should be considered (how do we trade off the death of sentient animals, or nonsentient plants, against native habitat and wildlife)? Those are all things to consider.

But the tenor of the article is one of equating human immigrants with invading species. As a biologist, I admit my biases that when trading off an invader that destroys native species and ecosystems, I give precedence to the natives. Each extinct species is a book that tells us not only about its ancestry, but also can impart fascinating facts about biology. Think of the Hawaiian Islands, where 95 out of the 142 endemic bird species (those found nowhere else) have gone extinct, not just because of habitat damage but because of introduced predators like rats and mongooses who destroy eggs, or feral pigs that destroy habitat. My solution would be, if possible, to get rid of the predators and pigs (as humanely as possible) and try to stem habitat loss.  Problems like this exist all over the world, and unless you have no appreciation for nature at all, you must think about invasion vs. conservation.

I have to say, though, that although the Vox article gives lip service to some truly damaging invasive species (e.g., cats and foxes that kill Australian marsupials), they tend to downplay many cases, like the interbreeding of coyotes with endangered red wolves (see below), my impression is that the article is written by a Leftist who favors open borders for the U.S. But of course the most invasive species of all, and the greatest danger to native species, is Homo sapiens.

Read and judge; you might take issue with my claims above.

As I said, the article isn’t as bad as it could be, but that’s not saying much when it comes to Vox.  Here’s a list of sentences and phrases where author Bolotnikova explicitly use the human/invasive species analogy:

For example, invasives can be considered a threat not only by killing or outcompeting native species but also by mating with them. To protect the “genetic integrity” of species, conservationists often go to extraordinary lengths to prevent animals from hybridizing, environmental writer Emma Marris points out in her book Wild SoulsFreedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World. Consider the effort in North Carolina to prevent coyotes from breeding with endangered red wolves, which bears uncomfortable parallels to Western preoccupations with racial purity that only recently went out of fashion.

Good Lord! Only those who are looking for offense would find these “parallels”. Wolves and coyotes are different biological species, for one thing.

. . .That’s why some scientists look askance at the influence of invasion biology and argue that the field has a baked-in, nativist bias on documenting negative consequences of introduced species and preserving nature as it is. Invasion biology is like epidemiology, the study of disease spread, biologists Matthew Chew and Scott Carroll wrote in a widely read opinion piece a decade ago, in that it is “a discipline explicitly devoted to destroying that which it studies.”

Historically, the term has erroneously expanded to the idea of, “‘If you’re not from here, then you are most likely going to be invasive,’” Sonia Shah, author of The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Movesaid on a June 2021 episode of Unexplainable, Vox’s science-mysteries podcast. Conservation policies have been crafted around the idea that if something is not from “here” — however we define that — “then it is likely to become invasive, and therefore we should repel it even before it causes any actual damage,” as Shah says, which is part of the nativist bent that pervades ecological management.

Now these are uncomfortable parallels, but they’re between human immigration and animal invasions (animals are often moved deliberately by humans). This could—and may well have intended to—be an argument for letting immigrants go wherever they want. But wait! There’s more!:

. . .What’s more, the very notion of “invasion” draws on a war metaphor, and media narratives about non-native species are remarkably similar to those describing enemy armies or immigrants. For example, a recent news story in the Guardian about armadillos “besieging” North Carolina described them as “pests” and “freakish.” It also gawked at the animal’s “booming reproduction rate,” an allegation that, not coincidentally, is leveled against human migrants.

Well, we use invasion and war as metaphors for disease to. Is the “battle against covid” an alt-right slur on immigration?

We always have to be wary of teaching “indigenous knowledge” as equivalent to Western science. (New Zealand is having a real issue with that right now.) Here’s a confusing paragraph about that:

Indigenous knowledge is increasingly being recognized as essential to conservation, write Nicholas Reo and Laura Ogden — Dartmouth University professors of Indigenous environmental studies and anthropology, respectively — in an ethnographic study of Anishinaabe perspectives on invasive species. (The Anishinaabe are a group of culturally related First Nations peoples in the Great Lakes region of Canada and the US.) Anishinaabe ideas, Reo and Ogden found, reflect a worldview that sees animals and plants as belonging to nations with their own purposes and believes people have the responsibility to find the reason for a species’ migration. The authors’ sources recognized parallels between the extermination of species deemed invasive and the dark history of colonial violence against Indigenous peoples. The interviews “helped me recognize the ways in which different philosophies of the world shape our ethical response to change,” Ogden says.

But do the Anishinaabe try to find out the reasons for species migrations? If they do, then they have to use modern science. If they don’t, then this is irrelevant to the issue of conservation.

Finally, the article couldn’t resist using the word “diaspora”, which is usually applied to Jews but refers to any people dispersed widely from where they originally lived. This is the first time I’ve seen it applied to animals:

In Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of Chile and Argentina, a particularly dramatic novel ecosystem is taking shape. In 1946, beavers were introduced there in a futile attempt to create a fur industry. Instead, the animals proliferated and munched down the region’s Nothofagus — southern beech — forests, creating dams and ponds. “They are these miraculous world builders,” says Ogden, who wrote an essay imagining the beavers not as invaders, but as a diaspora. (Beavers have also been a boon for ducks and other marine species.) The invasive species paradigm, Ogden adds, is devoid of nuance, history, and politics; she prefers a concept that gives expression to the moral complexity of the beavers’ presence in South America, as well as the fact that they had no choice in being moved there.

Ecologist Dan Simberloff, however, deems this invasion a “disaster” for the native habitat.

As I said, this article is not without merit. It raises questions about invasive species (do they really damage native habitat or fauna?) that laypeople may not have considered, but, believe me, biologists have considered. But there are moral questions that biologists haven’t considered: is it worth the lives of 10,000 beavers, for instance, to save the Patagonian forests? Biologists say “yes”, for we’ll always have beavers, but Patagonian forests (or Hawaiian birds), once gone, are gone for good.  (Yes, the beavers should be exterminated humanely, which I suppose the Vox article would consider “genocide”.)

But in general, this article, conflating the problem of human immigration and crossing of politically determined borders with the invasion of animals and plants into novel areas, is a good example of the naturalistic fallacy. We learn nothing about how to deal with human immigration from studying invasive species. Not only that, but if you want to be more accurate in your analogy, you’d liken invasive species not to Central Americans crowded at the American border, but to Cortéz genocidal extinction of the Aztecs.  After all, human immigrants don’t wipe out the population into which they meld.

Here are four extinct species once on Oahu, one of the Hawaiian islands:


h/t: Luana

44 thoughts on “Vox analogizes invasive species with human immigrants

  1. ‘I suppose it was inevitable that “invasive” species—species that take over a new area, often far from their native habitat—would be compared by the “progressive” Left to human immigrants, and thus the impact of these species minimized or even lauded.’ – Perhaps the progressives would do better to see these species through the lens of destructive colonialism?

  2. Today is the first day of my 2-day Feeder Watch count. I can typically see at least 17 species at my feeders, not counting accidentals like Cooper’s Hawk (Falco cooperii). So far I have seen nothing but Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) and House sparrows (Passer domesticus). The House sparrows number in the 20’s, and drive away all natives except the Blue jays. Guess what I think about invasive species.

    1. There are two issues tied to this idiotic and naive new ideology, one is few people can actually identifying ANY organisms beyond bird, plant, snake, dog, cat, tree, flower, (kindergarten-level science) and one of shifting baselines. If you don’t know what’s here now, you probably don’t know what was here before or in what numbers. Even a generation of ecological degradation has made major impacts on the number of different species one might encounter and the shear number of plants and animals. If you’ve never experienced a mass migration of wild birds, never seen an intact prairie in full bloom, or an old growth forest, you have no way of grasping what has been lost and probably think a yard full of dandelions and starlings is normal and desirable. You won’t miss the dozens of other life forms they have replaced. Sad.

  3. Wikipedia’s article includes some interesting points about terminology and notes that:

    The USDA’s National Invasive Species Information Center defines invasive species very narrowly. According to Executive Order 13112, “‘Invasive species’ means an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health”.


  4. I share a story from my Lived Experience :

    The “Jumping Earthworm” (Amynthas spp.) :


    Perdue and other sources have good material also.

    Many products in country A originate in country B, and these products can ostensibly be such things as plants. But the plants are growing in soil that might or might not have been sterilized. Pet stores can have other such products, an organic material that might have things like worms.

    As such, the species can get colloquially called their country of origin.

    The “Jumping Earthworm” I notice people simply calling them … I won’t even say, because there is no evidence, and might not be because the damage was done. So I simply stick with the facts, and point out that the country of origin might never be identified.

    It is a mess.

  5. I thought about this some years ago, & recall asking a question about this at a talk. It is called “nativism”.

    I have previously on WEIT suggested several books on the subject.
    One by Fred Pearce, one by biologist Chris Thomas, “Inheritors of the Earth”, one by Ken Thompson “Where do camels belong”.

    I suggest that far worse than rats & pigs in Hawaii, are mosquitoes that carry disease

    Similarly in the Galapagos. Chris Thomas argued we are remaking the world. It us better to have some species than none, but think snakes in Guam eating the birds that just sit there & die.

    Most introduced plant species are not invasive. Garden flowers for example – but it all depends where you are. Better to try to preserve habitats than waste conservation resources on lost causes.

    I’d give more references but I’m on a train & all my books are in boxes or being boxed for move out of the Great Wen!

    PS my friend, biologist Rebecca Nesbit, has written a book out next year that will discuss some of these issues.

    1. “Most introduced plant species are not invasive. Garden flowers for example” – The British bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta is in danger of being replaced by the Spanish one (Hyacinthoides hispanica) or their hybrid (Hyacinthoides x massartiana).

      1. I know that one – but is its true origin Japan?

        Others I know of:

        Burning Bush aka Euonymous
        Mustard something
        Barberry – a mouse/tick promoter
        Chokecherry aka … haven’t looked it up yet

        … some of those were acceptable as ornamentals from the local garden center until uh-oh – your forest is pulled down!…

        Chokecherry rinds me of the Strangler Fig, featured before on this website…

        1. The “mustard something” is most likely garlic mustard. As ugly a weed as there is, although supposedly edible,

  6. The article’s analogy is thought-provoking, although the definition of “immigrants” refers to political borderlines which often have no ecological meaning. But the article must have noted that the most invasive species on earth, in terms of colonizing many, varied ecozones, is the bipedal primate that spread from Africa to every part of the planet, including innumerable islands, deserts, the arctic, and high mountain ranges and plateaus. Today that species even makes forays into antarctica and the deep ocean, and leaves detritus in all the oceans and in outer space. All of this has not turned out so well for hundreds or
    thousands hof other species, as noted.

  7. Why does this seem to be part of the Progressive drive against any normative criticism? And, with regard to humans, the genie’s out of the bottle, unless they have plans for eradication.

  8. Sometimes the species brought in from another country for instance, is the one that pays the price. The Dutch Elm tree brought in to this country and planted everywhere. It finally could not survive the local insects that wiped it out. Same is true of the pine trees from foreign countries. They continue to die and will also be wiped out.

    Speaking of colonialism, both England and France made a career of that one spreading all over the planet. A lot of this was ended during WWII by the U.S. because it was a big part of the FDR strategy. He was very aware of both countries wanting to preserve their imperial ways and he was constantly wanting to kill this want. He was not interested in sending thousands of American soldiers to fight and die in other countries just to preserve their imperialistic ways.

    1. Hi Randall. Are you sure you have it right about Dutch Elm? In the UK and much of Europe populations of native elms (Ulmus spp) have been severely depleted by Dutch Elm Disease. The disease is caused by a fungal pathogen believed to originate in Asia, Ophiostoma novo-ulmi which kills the trees once they get to a certain age. The fungus is spread by bark beetles. The disease is known as Dutch Elm Disease because it was Dutch scientists who first identified the pathogen. I understood that native American elms have been afflicted in the same way by the same disease but perhaps you or someone else could confirm that.

      In Europe the ‘English Elm’ Ulmus procera spreads largely by ‘suckering’ from roots rather than from seed which meant that there was little genetic diversity in the elm population which meant in turn that the disease passed very rapidly through the whole population once it took hold as all individuals were equally vulnerable. However, as well as being an achilles heel that made the species particularly vulnerable to the disease, the suckering habit has been critical to the ongoing survival, despite the disease, of several insect species – such as the white-letter hairstreak butterfly Satyrium w-album, which feed exclusively on elm. Elm suckers provide food for long enough until they reach an age/size when they succumb to the disease by which time new suckers have formed from their own roots.

      1. I believe you are correct. I did not know the exact case that hit the Elm trees and I assumed it was similar to the pine wilt problem. In that case it hit the foreign pine (Scots pine) and has nearly wiped them out. So that one was a case of introduction of a foreign tree that was hit by pine. wilt. The elm did not happen in that way as you explain. I should have looked it up instead of assuming the same. Certainly we lost a generation of elm trees back in the 50s/60s from this fungus. It was dramatic here because the elms were the primary trees in so many areas and parks.

    2. And of course FDR was entirely consistent here, famously ordering the USA to withdraw from all of its colonial possessions such as the Great Plains, Louisiana, California, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

      1. I think maybe your definition of colonial possessions is much different than mine. Nothing in your statement has anything to do with the term.

  9. If there were a very positive variable different from our DNA (hypothetical), e.g. something that allows us to improve our own parameter by 10,000% (e.g.force, intelligence, force ,force) there would be a temptation to use such DNA against people from different power camps. Something like this can only be considered on the basis of the distortions inherent in power people.

    Very dangerous sytuacion, the Nazi racial theory was based on psudoscience and led to gigantic slaughterhouses for mankind.
    In the case of racism based on real scientific parameters, the results would be unimaginable evil if only one side had access to such hypothetical DNA.
    Probably off topic, a bit.

  10. if you want to be more accurate in your analogy, you’d liken invasive species not to Central Americans crowded at the American border, but to Cortéz genocidal extinction of the Aztecs. After all, human immigrants don’t wipe out the population into which they meld.

    Well but Cortez and the Aztecs are the same species, just different behaviors. For “human invasive species” examples you’d probably have to go back 10,000-20,000 years to when humans crossed into the Americas and (possibly, speculatively) started wiping out the megafauna there.

    Same thing with Australia; British colonists in the 1800s weren’t the human-invasive species event, as there had been humans living there for 45,000+ years. We’d have to look back at that earlier arrival and whether it correlates with any continent-scale extinctions to see if humans were invasive.

    Still, as I understand it you biologists also sometimes demarcate species based on behavior. In that respect, one might say that these were both ‘invasive species like‘ events where a new variety of an already-present species is introduced, and because it’s adapted to different conditions, does all sorts of damage to both the local ecosystem and the local varieties. Maybe analogous to African bees being introduced into the Americas??? I’m not really sure. Again though, I think one might object to that analogy by saying that humans are so genetically similar that our differences in culture and genetics don’t even rise to the level of a biological variety. And in terms of behavior, let’s face it, the Aztecs and conquistadors weren’t all that different. They were both conquering tribes, with the Aztecs having cut a bloody swath across mesoAmerica a few generations before the conquistadors cut their bloody swath across it. It was just that compared to the new invaders, they had worse technology (and a vulnerability to European diseases).

    1. Precisely, how do you build up an empire without conquering the land of others?
      Historian Camilla Townsend was interviewed by BBC history extra podcast about her book on the Mexicas (pronounced me-shi-ka, the original word for Aztecs, and hence the name of the country). She stressed during the interview that while the Mexicas DID perform human sacrifice, we should not demonize them or consider them an evil civilization.
      Well why not? We know that the Habsburg dynasty, that send Cortes on his merry way, also set up the Inquisition, to burn “heretics” at the stake. No one today wouldsuggestthat the Inquisitionshouldnot be demonized. Are we going to overplay the atrocities committed by one side and downplay those committed by the other?
      Gee, talk about bias!

      1. Don’t know much about the true extent or nature of their human sacrifice, but IIRC from the various courses I took and shows I’ve seen since then, they did conquer territory and towns through the “standard” means – i.e. killing people who objected to their rule. This doesn’t make them better or worse than other cultures, but that’s pretty much the point – Cortez’s “invasion” wasn’t some truly new behavior not practiced by the humans already in the Americas. It was just more of the same.

  11. Invasive species from Africa and Latin America going to Europe and America is ok.
    Invasive species from Europe and America going to Africa and Latin America, bad?

  12. I don’t know how PCC(e) might discuss this, but I think the term “Western science” is fair on three grounds. (1), the founding of experimental physics might be credited to Al Haytham, the 11th century Arab polymath. He grew up and began work in Basra, but he moved West to Cairo, where he wrote his works on mathematics, optics, and astronomy.
    (2) The experimental method expounded by Al Haytham was largely abandoned in his own civilization, due to religious thinking (following the philosopher Al Ghazali), or the Mongol invasion, or who knows what other causes. But it was revived north and West of Cairo, in Western Europe.
    (3) The application of empiricism to find out about everything was championed by the Italian Accademia dei Lincei. After its most prominent member, Galileo, was tried, condemned, and placed under house arrest by the RC Church, the center of gravity for this approach shifted again to the north and to the West.

    North America, where a good deal of science has been done in the last two centuries, is now in the grip of a religious awokening. One consequence of this fervor seems to be the subjection of scholars to a new religious test called the “Diversity Statement”. As a result, much of the conduct of science may before very long move westward again, across the Pacific Ocean.

  13. Comparing illegal immigrants to invasive species is literally what ecofascism does. Those people have their head so far up their bottoms that they don’t even notice they are contradicting themselves.

  14. To be honest, as an ecologist, I never liked the conservative approach of my colleagues, namely the idea that original landscape must be absolutely preserved and non-native species must be eradicated. Landscape is not a museum, it’s not immutable: it evolves like anything else in nature and we should let it evolve and change.
    I don’t think that a species deserves to be eradicated just because it is not native. And the same holds true for people: I don’t think that people with a different culture are bad or dangerous and must be rejected.

    Nevertheless, some cultures can really be dangerous. Not because they are different, but because they are violent and incompatible with human rights. Likewise, some species can really cause damages to the environment. This happens not necessarily with alien species: also native species can be damaging if they proliferate too much. But it’s true that alien species are more likely to be invasive and damaging.

    I wish a world were all – humans and other animals, as well as plant – were not judged based on their being native or non-native, but based on other criteria. For example: can they adapt to society/environment? can they provide ecological services? can they give a good contribution to society? Then they are welcome. Otherwise they aren’t.

    1. But wisteria can pull down trees in forests. Surely, a forest is more important than letting wisteria pull down trees?

      There is another one that I am finding difficult to identify that also winds around plants like trees and competes, sometimes winning, against the native trees.

      1. As I said, some plants and animals can cause damages and therefore interventions may be desirable, for sure!

        But interventions should be targeted to preserve a healthy and resilient environment (for example forests), regardless whether it is original or not.

        Robina pseudoacacia for example in Europa is not native, but in many contexts it provides useful ecological services (fertilizes soil, it’s a melliferous species…). Nevertheless Robinia trees are often cut down with no reason but that they are allochthonous. This kind of interventions must be avoided.

        1. Wikipedia :

          ” [Black locust] it will convert the grassland ecosystem into a forested ecosystem where the grasses are displaced.[12] Black locust has been listed as invasive in Connecticut and Wisconsin, and prohibited in Massachusetts.[2]”

          Wow – I also see the conservation status of Black locust is of “least concern”. As pertains to the human-race-ification of everything, here horticulture/botany, it would be (would it?) grotesque to apply such designations to populations of humans : “least concern”?


          Interesting word – it is in geology also – I quote Wikipedia :

          “Etymology: Greek; ‘allo’ = other, and ‘chthon’ = earth. In generalized terms, the term is applied to any geologic units that originated at a distance from their present location [2]”

      1. Evolution implies that extinctions can occur, less adapted species can disappear, and other species can spread. This has always happened. The problem is that now it is happening too fast, causing imbalances. However, not all changes are necessarily bad.

        About Robina pseudoacacia (Robinia), I did not know it was also considered invasive in America. So, it’s an example that even native species can be invasive! However, I disagree that black locust is harmful (at least not in all contexts). As written on Wikipedia: “it will convert the grassland ecosystem into a woodland ecosystem”. Considering the current situation, how can that be negative? Today we need forests, trees are our best allies to mitigate climate change, this type of conversion should be welcome! Also consider that the locust tree is a pioneer tree, which means that it tends to be invasive only in the first phase of colonization. Then, it spontaneously declines and gives way to other species.

        “Allocthonous” and its counterpart “autochthonous”. I didn’t know these words are used in geology too, interesting!

  15. From an ecological point of view, this is a position that I really appreciate:

    Look also at this great article of 2011: DON’T JUDGE SPECIES ON THEIR ORIGIN https://www.nature.com/articles/474153a

    This make sense, it’s rational and scientific. Unfortunately, many ecologists and biologists have many prejudices against alien species, they look really a bit racist. I don’t say this because I’m woke, I hate the woke! But from a scientific point of view, it doesn’t really make sense to judge species on their origin.

    1. “it doesn’t really make sense to judge species on their origin.”

      Judgement is not problem solving.

      At the level of the consumer, when the label on a piece of lumber says “product of Vietnam”, or pet products say “product of the USA” (as examples I have seen), these are facts to be taken account of when assessing the consequence of a decision to use those products – as a consumer, vs. a corporation.

      Especially when we notice little holes bored out of the lumber.

      Someone tracking down the source of the product would have to use the label on the product to learn the source of the material, and the life forms that might have traveled along with it.

      That is not “judgement”. It is problem solving.

Leave a Reply