Extinction is a natural part of the evolutionary process as animals adapt to their landscapes, evolve over time, genetically shift in response to a variety of pressures. Species come and go, experiments fail or work out spectacularly, and the landscape of life on Earth changes again and again in an endless cycle. It’s a fascinating, sometimes tragic, and unstoppable fact of life; because we evolve, because we change, because we are diverse and complex and the planet is big and varied, species eventually die out, and others rise to take their place.
This is in the natural order of things, and it can be documented throughout the fossil record. Scientists have charted the rise and fall of species and groups of animals to learn more about the Earth’s history, and about what seemed to work evolutionarily in the past. Every year we’re learning more about how evolution functions, and we have moved far from the model originally proposed and promoted by Darwin; his understanding was based on much less information than we have today, and while the work was vital, much of it is understood to be imperfect and dated today.
Over the course of the 20th century, a troubling thing started to happen; extinctions exceeded the background extinction rate, at which you would normally expect species to come and go with time. More animals were dying out more quickly than before, including everything from complex to simple organisms. Something was happening, and the most obvious explanation was human pressures on the natural world, from habitat destruction to overharvesting of natural resources. Much was made of the need to protect the diversity of life, to identify species most at risk of extinction and take measures to preserve them, to focus on conservation so we would have something to leave to the next generation.
Ecologically speaking, some of the most important organisms are the least impressive. A world without worms, and certain insects, and rats, would quickly be a messy and terrible and unhealthy place. These are not really the organisms you think of when you imagine the critical need to preserve diverse animal populations, though. You think of things like stunning mammals such as beautiful Siberian tigers, or rare birds. When it comes to conservation, you might envision the charming faces of badgers or noble wolves, with less of an interest in opossums and muskrats.
We are biased in the direction, in other words, of cute animals.
This comes as no surprise to anyone who has been on the Internet for more than thirty seconds, as it’s become a flourishing world of cute animal videos and websites that exist for no function beyond serving up adorable animals to viewers. They get millions of daily pageviews and are highly profitable; some may say that the Internet is for porn, but cute baby animals run a close second, I’d argue, and they’re a big money-making industry in and of themselves. When capitalism has embraced it, you know it has staying power. Cute baby animals, in other words, are a powerful motivator.
And they’re the ones that people rally around. Look to the panda, which has been the subject of extensive conservation attempts and significant struggles. It’s an animal so obstinate, picky, and fussy that it almost seems to want to go extinct, but we spend substantial amounts of money worldwide in conservation parks, zoos, breeding programmes, and research facilities to figure out how to save pandas. Because they are rather glorious to look at, and we enjoy looking at them, and we want to save them. They’re cute, I mean, really, who wants to be the one to say we should just go ahead and let pandas die out? Who wants to admit that we might use resources more efficiently on something other than, say, tigers, when they’re so magnificent and captivating?
We get caught in a strange and terrible bind where people who care about the environment and want to protect diverse organisms on Earth end up directing their money towards specific causes, and those funds are not always used with the most utilitarian goals in mind. Small measures can go a long way when it comes to protecting less cute or fascinating species, but those measures can’t be implemented because everyone’s focused on the big, flashy endangered and threatened species. The funds used to attempt to raise a panda to maturity so it can enter a breeding programme, for example, could be going to habitat conservation and the purchase of tracts of land for endangered species in the wild that need protection.
The attachment to majestic, beautiful, elegant animals speaks to something deeper in humans. I, too, am drawn to the flashy and the beautiful and the stunning; the thought of living in a world where there are no Siberian tigers is really sad to me. The fact that the reason they’re under so much pressure is humanity is also very sad. And my gut instinct is to, of course, want to throw resources at tigers to save them, so future generations can appreciate and enjoy them, so I can point to something we are going right in the world. But this may not be the best use of those resources.
And who should be deciding which species get the conservation budget? How do we balance the desire to conserve with the need to save as many species as possible, with an eye to key species that serve a very important role even if they aren’t much to look at? As we look at the house of cards that is life on Earth, how do we decide which cards can safely be removed, while others need to be propped up before they bring the whole thing tumbling down?