Sunday, May 02, 2004

Pounding on the Pandas Last week I reported on this column by Charles Colson, in which he argues that Darwinists should take pleasure in the looming extinction of the giant panda. They are simply losing out in competition against fitter competitors, you see. The column attained a level of such rarified, gourmet ignorance, it almost defied rebuttal. I nonetheless attempted that thankless task, arguing that someone needed to explain to Colson the difference between “is” and “ought”.

Well, it seems that Colson's outfit, BreakPoint is so enamored of this argument, that they actually found someone else to write the same column, available here. This time the author is someone named Roberto Rivera. Commenting on the striking coloration of the pandas, Rivera writes:

I have my own theory about the markings: they make the creatures so cute that people will care about what happens to them. Because, let's face it, evolutionarily speaking, Giant Pandas are losers. Unlike their ursine cousins who will eat almost anything, Giant Pandas, as you probably know, basically eat one thing: bamboo stems and leaves. Okay, two things.

I assume Rivera is being facetious about the reason for the panda's coloration, but his remark about pandas being evolutionary losers has no charitable interpretation. The panda, like every other modern species, resides at the end of a long line of winners in the game of survival. The pandas have been able to survive for a long time with their limited diet and leisurely reproductive rate. The reason they are endangered now is because of human encroachment on their natural habitats.

Rivera saves his best stuff for later in the article:

For those who take their Darwinism, as Thelonious Monk might've put it, straight, no chaser, the logical response to the plight of the Giant Panda is “tough.” Evolution is, if nothing else, unsentimental. It rewards adaptability and punishes, in the medium-to-long term, overspecialization. If your diet and habitat disappear-and that has happened countless times in Earth's history-then you do, too.

For those who take their theory of gravitation, as Thelonious Monk might've put it, straight, no chaser, the logical response to a plane crash is “tough”. Gravity is, if nothing else, unsentimental. What an asshole.

Actually, Rivera is so fond of this point, he proceeds to repeat it:

What's more, I've read many books and watched countless hours of PBS and Discovery Channel programs on evolution and the one thing that I haven't heard was a hint that a species felt regret or remorse about out-competing another species into extinction. Do you think that the American Bison feels bad that it is, among late- Pleistocene megafauna like the Columbian mammoth and the giant ground sloth, the only survivor? Or that the first modern humans to enter Europefelt [sic] regret about the eventual demise of the “indigenous population,” a.k.a., the Neanderthals? More to the point: I've never heard a modern paleontologist express such regret about such previous extinctions. As we?ve been told over and over, extinction is natural.

Anyone want to take a guess about the number of paleontologists with whom Rivera has discussed this topic? I'm thinking zero. I'm also thinking that, minus a spell checker, Rivera would find himself unable to spell “paleontologist”.

And just in case you were thinking of pointing out that biodiversity, whatever its aesthetic appeal, is good for humanity, rest assured that Rivera is all over that one:

Oh yeah, biologists treat biodiversity as an indispensable good of human existence but it's nothing of the kind. There are probably indispensable species out there but I'm hard pressed to name any of them. Contrary to what you've heard, the rain forests aren't the “lungs” of the planet. As Bjorn Lomborg writes in “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World,” if all the plants on the planet died and decomposed, the process would consume less than one percent of the atmosphere's oxygen. If anything, animals are even less indispensable to human existence. As animal rights activists never tire of telling us, we don't need to eat them to survive; soy, legumes, and grains can provide the necessary protein. We've technologically outgrown our need for animal labor, at least in the industrial world. What's true of chicks, ducks, geese and other things that scurry is especially true of the Giant Panda. If it and many other species were gone tomorrow the material impact on human existence would be less than negligible; it would be nonexistent. Saving it from extinction has nothing to do with self-interest.

Yes, he's serious. Plants, of course, don't merely produce oxygen, they also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If all the plants on the planet died, even the conservatives would have to accept the reality of global warming. Rivera fancies himself clever for pointing out that soy, legumes, and grains can provide necessary protein, but he simply ignores the fact that numerous animals are responsible for producing the conditions under which such things can grow. I'm sure he's right that the giant panda could go extinct without materially affecting human existence. But the fact remains that biodiversity is essential if we are to have an environment in which humans can survive and prosper.

Actually, Rivera is fond of biodiversity. He just thinks that Darwinians have no grounds for supporting it. So what's a better reason for supporting biodiversity?

What it has to do with is the qualities that cause humans, alone among the millions of species on Earth, to ponder their obligations to other species. As Leon Kass pointed out in “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis,” our capacity to ponder that question proves that we are not just another species. Peter Singer, Matthew Scully and, more recently, Jeffrey Moussaeiff, have all written, with ample justification, against the cruel treatment of animals. What often goes unmentioned in the debate about animal rights is that only human beings could debate animal rights. Not just because of the uniqueness of human language but because the arguments and appeals in such a debate only resonate with humans. Pardon the rhetorical questions but do lions care about the suffering of the zebra? Do Orcas, which often toss their prey back and forth like a beach ball before finally killing it, care about the feelings of seals?

Our relationship to the rest of creation is different and we know this is true even if we don?t believe in the biblical God. Even if we consider Genesis to be a pious fairy tale, we still see ourselves as the protector of other animals, especially those that are having a hard time surviving. That?s as it should be. What's not is insisting that man act as if he were special while, at the same time, insisting that?s he?s not.

Zing! First of all, no one, Darwinist or otherwise, has ever argued that humans are not uniquely able to ponder moral questions. But how does that imply that we are not just another species? An elephant could as plausibly argue that their enormous, highly flexible trunks show that they are not just another species (I mean, really, can you pick up a peanut with your nose?) . Every species has something that makes them unique among nature's productions.

What's particularly galling about this is that it's the conservatives who routinely oppose any sensible legislation geared at protecting species or solving other environmental problems. Colson, Rivera and their ilk care about biodiversity only to the extent that endangered species can be used to persuade their idiot readers that Darwinists hate animals. When it comes time to actually passing laws they find themselves far more sympathetic to polluters and despoilers.


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