Humans Behaving Badly Ecologically
By driving some animals extinct, are humans damaging the whole planet? Who will be the judge?
Several news articles recently have worried about the harm people are doing to animal species. A look through history, though, shows that humans have always done this. Roman emperors rounded up African wild animals for the arenas. It’s possible that humans were largely responsible for the disappearance of large mammals in North America. In our time, poachers are driving elephants and rhinos extinct unless they can be stopped. But if humans are products of evolution, who is to say these are evil practices?
Certainly many humans are righteously concerned about endangered species, and are investing their lives in saving them. Conservationists have been shot by poachers. If a tiny percentage are killing elephants, can you fault the whole population?
What is to be done, and how much? What about sports hunting? Hunters argue that the controlled taking of deer and elk has prevented environmental catastrophes in some cases. Some groups get upset when conservation efforts go overboard trying to protect endangered species, threatening not only human freedom, but people’s lives and safety. Should grizzly bears be re-introduced into the Sierra Nevada, endangering campers and hikers? What of the wolves who leave Yellowstone and indiscriminately kill a rancher’s sheep? Should California farmers be driven out of business by efforts to protect a small fish of dubious claim to its current habitat? It seems extreme to try to save every species as Evelyn Perez suggests on PhysOrg, considering that evolutionists believe millions of species went extinct before humans arrived on the scene. Some advocate rewilding (Science Daily), as if everything will be rosy if we turn the clock back. Aren’t people part of nature? Don’t they have a right to exist? These are important philosophical issues about man’s place in nature and whether or not humans are (or should be) exceptional. Before they can be addressed, a look at past and present ecological damage by humans is in order.
The National Academy of Sciences just published a special issue on the history of extinctions of large mammals. Several of the papers make the case that global transport of nutrients vitally depends on megafauna, like the mammoths, sabre-tooth cats and other large mammals that humans had a role in driving extinct. (But for a contrary view, consider that mammoths may have gone extinct from natural dietary causes, an article on Science Daily suggests.) The pendulum swings on this debate about human responsibility for the disappearance of American megafauna.
Here are some of the papers:
- Global nutrient transport in a world of giants (PNAS): “Animals play an important role in the transport of nutrients, but this role has diminished because many of the largest animals have gone extinct or experienced massive population declines.” See summary on Science Daily.
- Combining paleo-data and modern exclosure experiments to assess the impact of megafauna extinctions on woody vegetation (PNAS): Loss of large mammals affects the plant communities; “the decline of large herbivores induces major alterations in landscape structure and ecosystem functions.” Science Daily adds that this may explain more frequent wildfires.
- Exploring the influence of ancient and historic megaherbivore extirpations on the global methane budget (PNAS): The loss of large mammals can affect the climate due to their role in regulating the methane budget.
- Test of Martin’s overkill hypothesis using radiocarbon dates on extinct megafauna (PNAS): Radiocarbon evidence that humans killed off the western hemisphere megafauna as they migrated south. See summary on PhysOrg.
- Sea otters, kelp forests, and the extinction of Steller’s sea cow (PNAS): Some extinctions occur because of the loss of dependent species. This one occurred since the 1700s; sea cow extinction is related to overhunting of sea otters.
- Variable impact of late-Quaternary megafaunal extinction in causing ecological state shifts in North and South America (PNAS): Disappearance of species can have rapid and large impacts on ecological communities.
- Science for a wilder Anthropocene: Synthesis and future directions for trophic rewilding research (PNAS): How do we get the world back to its wild state? Should we? (See Science Daily)
Not Just in Ancient Times
Zimbabwe: 22 more elephants killed in Hwange Park by cyanide (PhysOrg): Poachers use cyanide to make quick work of elephants so they can harvest their tusks. “This brings to 62 the number of elephants poisoned by poachers in this southern Africa country in October.” How long can this go on before they are all gone? Baby elephants were killed in the raids, too, but after the recent carnage, the poachers only got away with 3 tusks. Many more were intercepted on their way to lucrative smugglers’ markets in Singapore.
Elephants boost tree losses in South Africa’s largest savanna reserve (Science Daily). In neighboring South Africa, however, elephants are doing well—too well. They are causing extensive damage to trees in protected areas, Science Daily points out. Scientists are not clear what role this plays, if it is the natural behavior of elephants. “Once they are introduced or reintroduced into a safe area, their numbers can grow very quickly,” the article states. “For example, over the past 20 years, the elephant population of Kruger has nearly doubled and continues to grow exponentially.” Are there too many for the land to sustain? “While this is undoubtedly good news, conservationists need to be able to promote a sustainable system for managing both the burgeoning elephant populations and the surrounding vegetation.” This is causing concern about “re-wilding” policies—attempts to restore earlier ecosystems to their wild state.
Lion (Panthera leo) populations are declining rapidly across Africa, except in intensively managed areas (PNAS): Lions have been declining precipitously since the 1990s. They may soon lose their iconic status as apex predator in Africa.
Rubbish haul found in stomach of dead whale in Taiwan (PhysOrg): “Taiwanese marine biologists have discovered a mass of plastic bags and fishing net in the stomach of a dead whale, underlying the dangers posed by floating ocean trash.” The trash problem is growing. Much of it washes down storm drains into the sea. Yet humans also lend a helping hand; Dave Anderson, owner of Dolphin Safari, is leading efforts to rescue whales trapped in fishing nets. Nearly 1,000 dolphins and whales die every day due to fishing gear entanglement, he says.
Ghost story: The problem of abandoned fishing gear and its effects on marine life deserve greater attention (Nature): This Editorial worries about ongoing risk to marine life from abandoned fishing gear. What would you do if you were far out in the vast ocean, and it was too troublesome to haul in a heavy net? Wouldn’t it seem a trifle to just let it go? Human nature thinks “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Some of this fishing gear is lost and some is abandoned in rough weather. Much is simply discarded by fishers with nowhere to stow it, who are fishing where they should not be, or who just want to avoid the expense and hassle of disposing of it properly. Most of this gear sinks to the bottom. It becomes a hazard, to boats and divers. And much of it continues to catch and kill, long after it has been forgotten.
Sea turtles face plastic pollution peril (University of Exeter): The bad news is that sea turtles also suffer from plastic pollution. The good news is that some species are recovering thanks to conservation efforts by concerned people, like those in Florida (PhysOrg).
These articles document that Homo sapiens can have an oversized impact on other species. This has happened since ancient times, even prehistoric times. But it would be unfair to indict all people, because many humans also care deeply about animals. Some take great risks to save them. It’s probable that even in ancient times some people had enough foresight to realize they should not exterminate the very animals they depend on, or it would mean starving.
“Humans are more than mammals,” Wesley J. Smith writes in Evolution News & Views. If we were like other mammals, we could be excused for doing whatever we do to thrive in our ecosystem. “Why is it wrong to abuse animals?” he asks. “….Precisely because we are human!”
Much as the modern environmental movement hates the “Genesis Mandate” (Gen 1:28, And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”) they depend on it. Like Smith says, if we are just mammals, the products of unguided evolution, we have no moral responsibility to the ecosystem. We could drive everything extinct, including ourselves; who would there be to call that wrong? It’s the fact that human beings are exceptional and morally responsible that provides the only hope for conserving endangered animals and plants. It could be argued that the environmental movement is an application of the Genesis Mandate. Whether or not the actions of some environmentalists are wise or not is a separate question.
The ideal conservation ethic was only possible in the Garden of Eden. After the Fall, selfishness reigned. Genesis goes on to describe Lamech and Nimrod and other prideful despots exalting themselves, doing whatever they wanted to do with other people and with nature. The earth became so filled with violence (most likely against animals as well as other humans) that God sent a Flood to start over with Noah and the animals. Within a generation of Noah, though, violence was on the rise again. After Babel, people were scattered around the Earth, making whatever living they could, warring against each other and taking natural resources as they wished, often with no regard for long-term ecological balance. It’s probable that any dinosaurs that survived were quickly hunted to extinction. Certainly even the NAS agrees that humans did it to the mammoths, mastodons, and other large mammals of the post-Ice Age world, so why not dinosaurs? We know they died recently because soft tissue is still found in their bones (6/09/15).
Only a tiny percentage of people commit the hands-on dirty work to African elephants and rhinos, but they are motivated by large markets for luxuries made out of ivory, or by superstitious beliefs in the power of rhino horn to cure disease. It’s the separation of our own actions and the far-off consequences that keep many of us from recognizing our complicity in the unnecessary and unnatural death of animals. Many in western nations express concern for the whales, but think nothing of tossing plastic trash on the street, where storm drains wash it out to sea. Kids think nothing of letting helium balloons loose into the sky where they can land on the ocean, and be mistaken for food by whales and dolphins. Most fishermen do not intend to kill dolphins and whales; it’s just too inconvenient to haul in those used nets, and the large gill nets are needed, they think, to satisfy the market and keep their jobs.
Evolutionists are stuck without a solution. To complain about what we are doing, they have to assume human exceptionalism and moral responsibility. Only creationists have the philosophical foundation to put the “ought” in environmental policy. That being said, there are no easy solutions. People have a right to make a living, too. We need to make use of natural resources to feed ourselves and our families. There’s going to be controversy between individual freedom and collective responsibility for stewardship.
At least creationists can fall back on the truth that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). We are stewards, not owners; our actions should please the Creator, who cares for what He has made. We can use our rational faculties to support policies that help the ecology to thrive so that our takings do not lead to environmental collapse. Jesus ate fish, but He didn’t drive them extinct. Pondering these principles can help us make food choices that support wise stewardship.
But what do we do with the majority of people who have no fear of God? What do we do with the poachers? Like we pointed out Sunday (10/25/15), the status quo is clearly not working. Strategies that turn human greed against itself (e.g., market economics) are at least worth trying (it’s noteworthy that the recent poaching atrocity took place in Zimbabwe, where corruption is rampant). Read the opinions of experts who offer four proposals for stopping the rhino horn trade (BBC News); a couple of them are market based. See Prager University video clip, “Is capitalism moral?”
For the long term, preach the gospel. The more people turn to their Creator and study His word, the more likely they are to care for what He has created—at least, that’s the way it should be.