People Portrayed as Predator Plague on Planet
Humans are exceptional, all right; they kill everything else. What would Darwin do?
The human capacity for self-incrimination seems to match its capacity for violence. “Are humans unsustainable ‘super predators’?”, Science Daily asks. “Want to see what science now calls the world’s ‘super predator’? Look in the mirror.” The statement does not suggest our reflection should show pride. Like the other news media, reporters are engaging in self-righteous flagellation of their fellow species mates in response to Chris Darimont’s paper in Science Magazine, “The Unique Ecology of Human Predators.”
Maybe you don’t picture yourself like a lion on the prowl in the supermarket, but your eating habits—and those of global humans—are paid for in blood of other inhabitants of earth at unsustainable levels, Darimont et al. claim. Jonathan Amos at the BBC News summarizes the bullet points, if you’ll pardon the expression:
- Humans’ status as a unique super-predator is laid bare in a new study published in Science magazine.
- The analysis of global data details the ruthlessness of our hunting practices and the impacts we have on prey.
- It shows how humans typically take out adult fish populations at 14 times the rate that marine animals do themselves.
- And on land, we kill top carnivores, such as bears, wolves and lions, at nine times their own self-predation rate.
- But perhaps the most striking observation, say authors Chris Darimont and colleagues, is the way human beings focus so heavily on taking down adult prey.
- This is quite different from the rest of the animal kingdom, for which the juveniles of a species tend to be the most exploited.
Indeed, without humans, “the whole world could look like Serengeti,” another Science Daily article claims. Feeling guilty enough yet?
But wait, you say. I haven’t shot any bears lately. I only eat fish once or twice a month. Sorry; this guilt trip is for you. You are a member of Homo sapiens. We’re all in this together. It’s been going on for a long, long time.
In a world without humans, most of northern Europe would probably now be home to not only wolves, Eurasian elk (moose) and bears, but also animals such as elephants and rhinoceroses.
This is demonstrated in a new study conducted by researchers from Aarhus University, Denmark. In a previous analysis, they have shown that the mass extinction of large mammals during the Last Ice Age and in subsequent millennia (the late-Quaternary megafauna extinction) is largely explainable from the expansion of modern man (Homo sapiens) across the world. In this follow-up study, they investigate what the natural worldwide diversity patterns of mammals would be like in the absence of past and present human impacts, based on estimates of the natural distribution of each species according to its ecology, biogeography and the current natural environmental template. They provide the first estimate of how the mammal diversity world map would have appeared without the impact of modern man.
“Northern Europe is far from the only place in which humans have reduced the diversity of mammals — it’s a worldwide phenomenon. And, in most places, there’s a very large deficit in mammal diversity relative to what it would naturally have been,” says Professor Jens-Christian Svenning, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, who is one of the researchers behind the study.
Feeling guilty enough yet? Don’t worry, you have a defense. There are some questions you can ask.
The quote above just differentiated between “what it would naturally have been” — implying that something unnatural has intruded into the biosphere. But wait: aren’t humans natural? Didn’t they evolve by the same Darwinian mechanisms that produced the bears, the wolves and the other apex predators? The authors of the paper sure think so:
Whereas sociopolitical factors can explain why humans repeatedly overexploit, cultural and technological dimensions can explain how. Human predatory behavior evolved much faster than competing predators and the defensive adaptations of prey. Indeed, division of labor, global trade systems, and dedicated recreational pursuit have equipped highly specialized individuals with advanced killing technology and fossil fuel subsidy that essentially obviate energetically expensive and formerly dangerous search, pursuit, and capture. Moreover, agri- and aquaculture, as well as an ever-increasing taxonomic and geographic niche, leave an enormous and rapidly growing human population demographically decoupled from dwindling prey. In fact, low prey abundance can drive aggressive exploitation, because of the increased economic value of rare resources.
The authors fall short of preaching about what humans “should” do about this mess. That was wise, because a clever respondent could brag about humans’ exploits as a great illustration of survival of the fittest. It shows that we humans have been the most successful predators ever to evolve! What would Darwin say about that?
If the response is that the situation has become unsustainable, our clever respondent could point to numerous examples in the evolutionary timeline of mass extinctions before humans arrived. Predator and prey populations naturally adjust, after all; if humans exceed their prey supply, they will just die off till the balance is restored. Why worry? In fact, even if humans eventually collapse the biosphere, and everything dies (except maybe the cockroaches)—well, those things happen on planets from time to time. Isn’t that why no aliens have contacted us yet?
Like a quiet but perceptible hum, there’s a subtext in these articles that humans are bad. We must change the way we treat other animals. They scientists and reporters don’t come out and say it, but they want to motivate change. They want to go from “is” to “ought.” We ought to stop killing off the big animals and harvest what we need in a more sustainable manner. We ought to return the world to a Serengeti. Notice how Boris Worm starts with an evolutionary “is” in the end of his analysis of the paper in the same issue of Science Magazine:
Modern humans evolved as cooperative hunter-gatherers whose cultural and technological evolution enabled them to slay prey much larger than themselves, across many species groups. One might think that those hunting skills have faded since the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry almost 10,000 years ago. Yet, as Darimont et al. show in a global analysis on page 858 of this issue, we are still the unique superpredator that we evolved to be.
But by the end of his article, Worm subtly transitions to an “ought” —
What does this general body of work tell us then, about our own species? There are three key insights. First, the hunting of large prey is deeply embedded in our identity and remains a powerful ecological and evolutionary force. Second, the ability to target mostly adult individuals across marine and terrestrial prey groups makes us unique among all other predators. And third, we have the unusual ability to analyze and consciously adjust our behavior to minimize deleterious consequences. This final point, I believe, will prove critical for our continued coexistence with viable wildlife population on land and in the sea.
His first two points merely state what is. His third point is half “is” and half “ought.” We have “the unusual ability to analyze and consciously adjust our behavior,” he says, as if this is a bizarre evolutionary trait like a peacock tail or stinging tentacle. Nothing about that “unusual ability” embeds any moral imperative about what we “ought” to do with that ability. But then, he says we can use it “to minimize deleterious consequences.” The word deleterious means harmful; injurious. In what sense? It’s a matter of perspective; killing any animal to eat it is deleterious to the animal, but rewarding to the eater. Dr. Worm thinks that “our continued coexistence” with wildlife requires us to “analyze and consciously adjust our behavior” to minimize the injury. But why? The individual who eats is happy. If the biosphere collapses later on, well—tough luck. That’s no different from an asteroid hitting the planet and causing the Permian mass extinction. Different agent; same result.
When man becomes the prey: Officials in Yellowstone are in a quandary about how to respond to the latest death of a hiker killed by a grizzly. National Geographic asks, “What to do with a bear that kills a person?” On the one hand, they don’t want problem bears to become accustomed to human flesh as food. On the other hand, the a female grizzly with cubs cannot be held morally responsible for doing something that comes naturally. Superintendent Dan Wenk was bombarded with phone calls pleading with him to save the bear. Public responses were at opposite extremes.
Fanned by social media, the outpouring of concern over Wenk’s decision echoed the uproar earlier this summer over the illegal killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by an American trophy hunter.
Among the thousands who weighed in, many argued that hikers in Yellowstone trek at their own risk in a park known to be the domain of grizzlies, and if they die from a run-in, no harm should come to the bear. Others rallied to the defense of the victim, who even in death came under withering criticism for his lack of caution, and demanded that the bear be put down.
Wenk, a strong advocate of wildlife, decided to put the bear down, based on past experience with bears that “never forget” that humans can be prey. He faced enormous criticism for that decision, but decided to err on the side of caution.
Grizzlies used to inhabit the Sierra Nevada. The last one was shot less than a century ago (L.A. Times). Some were shot for sports prowess, others because they were pests, but now they are gone. Since park officials decided to put wolves back in Yellowstone, why not grizzlies in Yosemite? Who would be liable for death and injury? Would Europeans endure free-roaming lions and elephants in their countries? “Should” humans let the world become like Serengeti? These are hard questions. Without a common moral compass, humans are unlikely to find defensible answers. What is likely is more imposed control from governmental and international decision makers, who equate “sustainability” with U.N.-directed global governance.
Only Bible believers have the grounds for putting the “ought” in “continued coexistence” with other animals. It’s true; many human have engaged in unwise actions against their fellow creatures. The slaughter of American bison for sport is an example. (Note: contrary to common opinion, native Americans were not guiltless in this regard; they stampeded buffalo off cliffs sometimes.) A species of hummingbird was driven extinct because of a fad of using them in women’s corsages. Beaver were slaughtered to make hats for European men. A giant sequoia was cut down to make a dance floor.
Short-sighted exploitation of other animals and plants goes way back. The Romans gathered lions and other wild animals to do battle in their arenas for entertainment (or to kill Christians), starving them to make them more vicious. The Tyrians harvested Cedars of Lebanon to unsustainable levels. And in the unrecorded past, migrants to the Americas undoubtedly drove the giant moa birds and the large mammals extinct.
It continues today. Environmentalists are right to point out that gill nets, trophy hunting and poaching elephants for their ivory are wicked practices that will drive endangered species extinct. Humans should be wiser in their food harvesting so as to sustain levels for future generations. That makes perfect sense if wisdom is not just an evolutionary strategy, but a virtue. The very Genesis text that environmentalists detest (the dominion mandate, Genesis 1:26) actually is the solution to the problem. Ruling over the fish and animals, in God’s economy, means stewardship. That implies care, maintenance, and recognition that the authority over creation is not “Lord man” as John Muir used to disparage his own species, but the Lord God who created them all. The 10th commandment “Thou shalt not covet”, as Dennis Prager explains, is a recognition of private property rights as well as a solution to sustainable society. See also the Stossel video on Tragedy of the Commons. A return to Genesis and the Ten Commandments is the solution to environmental stewardship, since it turns humans’ natural tendency toward greed (due to sin) into constructive action for the common good—including the good of our fellow creatures.
Discussion questions: Does the Tragedy of the Commons explain the exploitation of natural resources by humans and extinction of the megafauna? Which could better administer wildlife reserves: governments or private property owners?