Nothing lives forever

This is actually a combination of two post ideas I had, because I realized that the perspective discussed in one had direct bearing on the other. And then, while this was in draft form, another related item came up. Bear with me as we wend through it all.

Every once in a while I hear something about a culture dying out, or a language on the verge of disappearing because only three people speak it, and I simply cannot get worked up over it. You mean nobody will speak Blaghini anymore, or dance the Hahnhahnuman Laundry Dance ever again? That’s the way it goes, I guess.

I’m largely the same way with lost cultures that anthropologists attempt to piece together. While there might be something of interest in how past populations dealt with drought, for instance, these represent little more than puzzles. The likelihood of discovering something that could possibly impact our lives today is absurd in the extreme, and to be blunt, we know exactly where the lost culture went: nowhere. It’s more interesting to try and determine what happened to the dominant sauropods or early hominids, because these might give us a lot of insight into extinction events and competitive pressures, but what kind of clothes they wore (the hominids, anyway) is really nothing more than a curiosity.

Cultures are an aspect of populations, and represent what a majority of people in any particular division (tribe, geographic area, etc.) engage in. They change – it’s safe to say constantly – and former aspects are abandoned in favor of new, better practices. When some aspect of culture is disappearing forever, the only thing this says is that no one has a use for it anymore. This isn’t anything to decry, any more than discarding worn-out clothes is.

Undoubtedly, some of our concern over dying cultures comes from our emphasis on tradition, which doesn’t have much of a rational application to such things. Even if someone derives some value from tradition, it seems obvious that any culture that is vanishing hasn’t established enough of a traditional influence within today’s culture. And any language with a handful of speakers is no longer a language, but has become instead an in-game. For instance, anyone can make up new words for objects and concepts, but that’s not a language – the point of language is to communicate. Exclusive ‘languages’ are not communicative, but divisive instead.

Someone might argue the benefit of history, but in most cases that’s different from culture. History is not only events, but events that had significant impact on cultures, and may encompass what can be learned from the attitudes prevalent at the time. There have been no philosophical enclaves comparable to those of ancient Greece for thousands of years, but these are not ‘lost’ to us since we have copious records of such, and few feel any real need to dress as the philosophers did and speak in the languages of those times. We retained what was useful (and many parts that weren’t,) but do not regret the loss of cultural practices. Times change, and with them the cultures.

I imagine some might even feel remorse over the idea that something is gone forever, but this doesn’t survive the application of perspective. The food anyone ate last week is gone forever too – so what? Ah, but was it a really good meal? Wonderful – you have memories of it then, and perhaps the recipe or the address of the restaurant. But no one (sane) saves a portion of the meal to preserve forever. If it is not able to be eaten, then it is not food. And one person singing the ‘old songs’ is not preserving a culture, unless we can then call the personal actions of any individual a ‘culture’ as well. That’s not what the word means.

Now, here’s part two. There is an interesting correlation to our efforts to preserve endangered species, and to a lesser extent, native species against “invasive” species – I need to use the word “species” one more time in this sentence. There is a pretty significant amount of effort and funding (granted, usually donations) expended towards both of these efforts… but when viewed in the same perspective as that above, it raises the question of why?

Let me get this out of the way early: I’m a naturalist at heart, and conservationist, and environmentalist – none of the points I’m making come from the idea that I really don’t care about species or ecosystems, or have a typical kneejerk (emphasis on jerk) reaction to “treehuggers.” But it’s impossible to rationally deny that untold thousands of species have disappeared from this planet over the millennia – that’s the very basis of natural selection. It seems presumptuous to attempt to save a species from extinction, as if we not only have a special power, but a special insight as well. The desire to “save an animal” is most likely driven by empathy, and while it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it bears asking just what exactly the point might be. Does it actually mean we’re trying to maintain a species in an environment that it no longer fits, believing that the entire concept of selection doesn’t or shouldn’t apply?

There’s also the concern of invasive species, which themselves have led to inordinate amounts of impact in areas with delicate and balanced ecological niches. Entire island populations have been decimated by the introduction of rats, cats, domesticated grazing animals, and the like. Kudzu strangles many other kinds of plants in the American southeast, and zebra mussels growing unchecked in lakes affect power production, shipping, and even food levels for other species. Witnessing the effects of these has made it clear that, especially in isolated and unique biosystems, small changes can have huge consequences.

The main school of thought on this, of course, is “don’t introduce or transport species,” and this is hard to argue with. Yet, there are two pertinent factors that I wish to point out. The first is that humans are hardly an alien species on this planet, so there isn’t anything that we do that can be considered “unnatural,” despite there being a very common attitude otherwise. And that ties in with the second factor, which is that species introduction is a fairly common occurrence throughout the history of life on this planet, up to and including the emergence of tetrapods from the seas 375 million years ago. Plate tectonics, floods and tsunamis, land bridges, icepacks, seeds carried by migratory birds, and many more besides, all contribute to the distribution of life on this planet. While rapid worldwide travel is something unique to Homo sapiens, all this really means is that species introduction has been accelerated by us – not that we are criminally responsible.

What all of this leads to is the question of just how responsible we should consider ourselves. Alone among the occupants of this planet, we can contemplate and predict (to some extent) the effect of both species introduction and extinctions. We are aware of the consequences of both, and often times the causes, and can sometimes prevent such from happening. But the keyword in there is ‘sometimes.’ Even if we had known the hazards of zebra mussels hitchhiking on ships, is there really anything we could do about it even now, much less a hundred or more years ago? Is it better to introduce grazing animals with our colonies for clothing and food, or hunt the native species to extinction for the same – or attempt to domesticate a native species to sustain a breeding program that meets our needs? Where this train of thought quickly leads is that we should probably just stay put, stabilize our own populations, and try not to change anything. Realistically of course, that’s not going to happen.

And what about species on the brink of extinction? There is much talk now that the money poured into panda programs is likely a wasted effort, and with such a small population in the wild as it is, their eventual disappearance isn’t likely to have significant effect – again, it may be occurring not through anything that we’ve done, but because pandas have not adapted to their environmental changes. Komodo dragons exist in a very narrow niche, which is essentially an accident waiting to happen. It is virtually guaranteed that such a species is not going to expand beyond a handful of isolated islands, and nature has a way of selecting against such precarious circumstances. Even if we developed a hugely successful breeding program, one devastating monsoon can eradicate the only place on the planet that they have to live within, which means either maintaining the species as a permanent captive, or introducing it into an area where it does not now live.

I’m not arguing for the cessation of efforts towards any of these goals, or indeed, for any particular approach; I’m just attempting to produce some introspection about our conservation activities, and the recognition of viable goals in the first place, with the problem of defining ‘viable’ in tow. We have a limited ability to be stewards, and some things are simply outside of our power to change. Now this attitude, coupled with the idea mentioned above that we and our actions are a natural part of this planet, seems to imply that we should simply make no effort whatsoever and take everything as it comes, but this ignores one crucial factor: that we can predict the consequences of our actions and possess the brains to alter our environment, to at least a small degree, in ways that are beneficial. That is also a natural part of us.

Life’s selection processes have a tendency to deal with issues such as overpopulation or susceptibility to certain environmental changes – but not in a particularly pleasant way. Starvation, fiercer competition, diseases promoted by overcrowding, radical new defenses among native species… the list is long and not kind. Moreover, we already know that very small changes can have a ripple effect throughout a biosystem. Draining a wetlands area to make housing for more people may take away the food sources of the smaller crustaceans, which are food sources for smaller fish, which are food sources for larger fish, that are our food sources. Overgrazing can increase soil erosion, which eradicates topsoil and the ability to grow anything, and exposes more rock which increases heat reflectivity into the atmosphere, which can promote more storm activity, and even cause frequent flooding in areas far removed from the overgrazed fields. While all of this is perfectly natural, it often isn’t something that we really want to cope with, and if we have the ability to prevent it, it’s undeniably stupid to avoid doing so.

Can we save the pandas? Quite possibly not – but we should be aware of what impact their disappearance might have. Is it crucial that the Galapágos remain as they are? It’s very hard to say, since we don’t know how much effect any species therein has on its environment. We can certainly choose to protect a particular endangered species, with the recognition that it may not be entirely within our power. We must also recognize that in some areas, such as the Amazon basin, our affluent first-world desires to prevent the extinction of a rare species may mean squat to indigenous people who are struggling to survive in a poverty-stricken agrarian economy. Protecting the red-eyed tree frogs may actually mean building a sustainable economic structure for their human neighbors, to reduce the demand for farmland, exportable lumber, and even charcoal. This is another demonstration of a ripple effect.

But most especially, if we aim to protect species, we need to protect their environment, and in many cases, this requires that we curb our own indulgent behavior as Homo sapiens. Ultimately, our aim should be zero population growth worldwide, as well as the effective resource and economic distribution – while this might be a very hard point to get across globally, it also has to start somewhere. It is entirely possible that the traits that we have, our unique perspective on the world and our self-importance within it, are things that nature may well select against, as we overextend ourselves beyond the resources available and go through rapid, nasty population declines. Or we can see this looming on the horizon and turn away, which it would be nice to believe is a useful function of our advanced brains.

The disappearance of species, like cultures, often happens on its own – but we can accomplish it far too easily ourselves for short-sighted and self-absorbed reasons, too. Nature selection may be harsh at times, but its selections are at least functional.