*This article was published in the 2012 edition of The Mudskipper, the official publication of the NUS Life Sciences Society*
Environmental conservation is a good thing, or so we are often told. In this day and age following decades of environmental neglect and in light of ominous portents of impending environmental catastrophe, we are often reminded by our friends, family, teachers, and even the media that environmental conservation is fundamentally good and of utmost importance. As a consequence, we are constantly subjected to a ceaseless barrage of polemic exhorting that we reduce our carbon footprint, recycle our waste and avoid consuming endangered animals, among other lifestyle-changing adjustments. The conservation agenda, it seems, is one that currently holds the distinction of having permeated the entirety of public consciousness and awareness. It would appear, however, that while the arguments advocating conservation-mindedness might on the surface be compelling, these arguments are more often than not all too easily accepted by us without question. For how many of us actually take the time to think through these issues instead of blindly accepting (or defiantly ignoring) these admonishments and exhortations?
The reason why I began thinking about this issue was due in part to a conversation I had with a particularly enlightened acquaintance of mine, a freshman in the Life Sciences at the time, in which he tried to explain to me his argument for why conservation is rubbish. During that brief exchange, he argued that conservation was unnecessary for two main reasons: That conservation is a form of human interference with the natural processes of evolution and extinction; and that conservation is irrelevant since, biochemically speaking, a species is merely an assemblage of molecules that can be stored as digital information, making the actual preservation of a species and its environment a redundant and overly complex approach. Suffice it to say, while I was thoroughly appalled by his dangerously misguided views on conservation, what terrified me even more was the thought that there were likely to be many other people who shared his line of thinking and that those who would uncritically accept the ‘goodness’ of conservation would just as unhesitatingly accept the impoverished, if ostensibly compelling, arguments that seek to convince otherwise. It was through this realisation that I felt compelled to pen this piece in the hopes that I may not only redress the fallacies being promulgated as legitimate anti-conservation arguments, but also provoke those who would read this piece to question the bases for their opinions on conservation.
Conservation is Unnatural
The first anti-conservation argument we encounter is based on the premise that evolution and extinction are both natural processes that occur regardless of human activity. Indeed, the story of life on Earth is primarily an account of the success stories of species that were best able to adapt to environmental conditions, as well as the failures of species that were unable to compete in a world where the prevailing philosophy is more commonly known as ‘survival of the fittest’. Adaptation, natural selection and extinction are therefore intrinsic elements of life as we know it. As such, in seeking to preserve certain species and the environments they live in, conservation is by extension going against the very essence of life itself – it is preserving species that are unable to adapt to prevailing environmental conditions and defying the laws that govern the natural world. This need to conserve, it is argued, is due to the fact that human impacts on the environment are often perceived as being unnatural, which is absurd since humans are as much a part of the biosphere as any other organism. Consequently, rather than treat human impacts such as habitat degradation or the introduction of exotic species as unnatural acts, we ought to embrace these impacts as we would any other natural process and let nature take care of the consequences. If a native species were to go extinct due to competition from a non-native species, so be it – natural selection and the doctrine of ‘survival of the fittest’ prevails. Likewise, species extinctions due to habitat loss would be nothing to worry about since all this is merely natural selection at work and our knowledge of the fossil record demonstrates that organisms as great as the dinosaurs have themselves gone extinct due to their inability to cope with altered environmental conditions – why then should human modifications to the natural environment be treated any differently?
If at this point you find yourself nodding in agreement, then I suggest you take a step back and reconsider this position because this argument is, at its core, fundamentally incomplete. In seeking to recontextualise human actions as being natural and therefore a part of the larger body of environmental processes, this argument only accounts for the impact of human actions but fails to consider the cyclical and consequent impact of nature on humanity. While this seemingly high-minded unification of man with nature is a noble ideal, it is, at its core, fundamentally incomplete because it asserts on the one hand that human actions are natural processes while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that nature herself will have an impact on humans too. The extinction of, say, a species of tree-climbing crab due to pollution or overharvesting may indeed be an example of natural selection at work, but to only consider this aspect is to ignore the fact that a species such as a tree-climbing crab also plays a role in the larger environment and that humans are dependent on this environment as well. In the case of the tree-climbing crab, extinction may lead to the loss of an essential component of the mangrove nutrient cycle since these crabs are responsible for transporting nutrients locked in dead leaves back into the mangrove mud, thereby leading to the thinning of mangrove forests and the loss of habitat for several other mangrove associated species that humans depend on such as fish and mollusc species, not to mention the fact that tree-climbing crabs are also an important food source for many bird species, which are in turn vectors of seed dispersal. To argue that human actions are natural while at the same time assuming that humans can live independently of nature is therefore a contradiction in terms and only serves to divest humanity of accountability for our actions. Conservation therefore functions not to alter or go against the laws of nature, but to mitigate the excessive and unsustainable impact of man on his immediate environment since these impacts are likely to have downstream effects on the livelihoods of various peoples. Rather than viewing man as an entity separate from his environment, conservation is precisely about the relationship between man and his environment and the ways in which human actions may result in a feedback reaction from the environment that would doubtless have an impact on humanity in turn. Conservation is only ‘unnatural’ if you assume that man can live independently of his external environment.
There is, however, an even more cardinal and dire flaw that underlies this argument over what a natural process really is – that being the folly of deterministic thinking. Taken to its logical extreme, since evolution and extinction are both natural processes and, by extension, all species will eventually go extinct or evolve into one or more new species, perhaps there is no point in conserving anything at all since all organisms are unlikely to remain the same or continue to persist. Conservation is therefore a futile effort at freezing time in a dynamically evolving world and, if a species were destined to die out anyway, would conserving it therefore be a waste of money? The problem with deterministic arguments is that there exists an implicit assumption that the final state is completely known and of primary importance while the intermediate stages in between matter little, if at all. In the case of conservation, the deterministic argument essentially asserts that the entire life history of an organism and the roles it may play in interacting with other organisms and the environment are meaningless and that a species exists only for the sake of achieving its final state of extinction or evolution. In the same way, all medicine is worthless since all humans are destined to die anyway and the application of medicine only serves to forestall the inevitable.
The inherent problem here, therefore, is twofold – we have on the one hand the misconception of conservation as being a quest to freeze the environment in a fixed state in perpetuity and on the other hand, the issue now centres not on whether species conservation is natural, but whether a species has sufficient value to render it worth conserving since the assumption that a species exists only for the sake of going extinct implies that a species is in itself devoid of any intrinsic value whatsoever. While the first misconception is a problem born out of ignorance and is of little consequence, the second issue is far more distressing because it is this concept of value that serves as the basis for asserting that conservation is both unnatural and futile. By assuming, as the deterministic argument does, that a species has no intrinsic value to speak of beyond its ability to go extinct, to save something that is both worthless and doomed would therefore appear to be both unnatural and futile. On the contrary, as described earlier, an organism is more than just an entity that eats, breathes, excretes and dies – it is also a contributory element within a larger ecosystem, an ecosystem that in turn provides ecological services that ensure continued habitability and productivity and in both these cases, humans stand to benefit – an ideal case for intrinsic value if there ever was one. In understanding the imperatives of conservation, it is therefore important to comprehend that a species is not merely a lone entity in itself, but is instead a part of a much larger network of relationships that collectively form an ecosystem. This is by no means a novel concept since it is embodied in the very essence of the food web itself – a concept once thought so simple as to be taught in Primary school and one that has since been forgotten by so many, consigned to the intellectual garbage-heap of trivial ideas when it is in fact extremely powerful in explaining the interdependent nature of communities and the devastating impact of species extinctions. No organism exists for its own sake – every species that ever existed is the result of having evolved to occupy a particular niche within a particular space at a particular point in time, and every organism therefore assumes one or more roles and functions within its immediate environment. There is no such thing as a useless, worthless or valueless species. Only in a world where living creatures are nothing more than mysterious conjurations at the caprice of a mad, mystical beardy man in the sky can life forms seemingly exist for no purpose other than to go extinct, and what a cruel and heartless being that must be. Conservation is therefore not about preserving individual species in isolation, nor is it about fixing a population in time as a static entity owing to some peculiarities of ideology – it is instead related to understanding how multiple species could have evolved in tandem over millions of years to become part of the ecosystem we see today and to elucidate the precise nature of these interactions so that measures can be taken to forestall the collapse of the ecosystems that are so essential for the continued survival of humanity.
Conservation is Irrelevant
Having established that a species is more than just a population of organisms living in isolation from their environment and that individual species possess their own intrinsic value depending on the contexts within which they are located, the question of conservation’s importance now shifts to that of the means by which conservation is undertaken, which leads us to our second anti-conservation argument. In this instance, it is argued that while the preservation of natural environments and their associated species makes sense from a systems-level perspective of an ecological approach, the objectives of conservation start to fall apart when examined through the lens of biochemistry and molecular biology. With the rise of molecular techniques for probing the very basis of life itself, and given how most of us Life Science students are likely to end up pursuing a specialisation in molecular biology or biomedical science, it is clear that molecular approaches have fast become one of the most, if not already the most powerful and objective means by which the natural world is understood. Far beyond the realm of mere observation and conjecture, molecular techniques allow us to digitise and endlessly reproduce nucleic acid and peptide sequences – the chemical ‘building blocks’ of life – in an effort to catalogue and illuminate the splendour of the natural world we live in. With such great strides having been made in the field of molecular biology, it is now possible to preserve whole organisms as lines of DNA code on a hard drive, as cDNA libraries in a petri dish and as vials of purified proteins in a freezer without having to deal with the organism in the first place – altogether a much more clean, efficient and space-saving solution indeed. From the perspective of molecular biology, it is therefore incongruous that so much effort would have to be devoted toward the conservation of various animal species and their environments when it would be so much simpler instead to have these species immortalised in a gene bank. Given the importance and effectiveness of molecular biology in reshaping our understanding of life, evolution and the environment, perhaps it is time that molecular perspectives on conservation be accorded greater priority and importance in shaping the conservation agenda – that species may be preserved in a far more objective and efficient manner as DNA sequences and the like rather than resorting to the outmoded and painfully inefficient methods of conserving organisms and environments as they are since, from the perspective of molecular biology, a species is no more than a complex assemblage of interacting biomolecules.
While this argument might sound absolutely ridiculous to many, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that there are people who believe with absolute certainty that molecular perspectives are the superior, if not the only way by which the natural world can be understood, and this misconception might potentially be especially acute here in Singapore given the educational thrust toward emphasising molecular biology over other aspects of the biological sciences and the sheer majority of NUS Life Science students who do eventually end up in the molecular and biomedical sciences. The problem with this argument is not that molecular perspectives are necessarily wrong or misguided, but that to assert that conservation can be seen or driven by a single ‘perspective’ is to oversimplify the nature of conservation and to do injustice to the multifaceted issue that conservation truly is. To argue that conservation and the natural environment can be seen purely in terms of molecular interactions is to fall prey to the fallacy of reductionism – where the whole is assumed to be no more than the sum of its constituent parts. In this particular instance, while it is undoubtedly true that the fundamental basis for all life stems from the interactions of molecules at the cellular level and that all biological phenomena can be reduced to chains of events that ultimately lead back to molecular interactions, to assert that every aspect of life can therefore be understood on a purely biochemical basis is to ignore the fact that biological interactions occur at various spatial scales – from the molecular to the macroscopic – and that each higher spatial scale brings with it complexities and emergent phenomena that cannot be explained from the first principles of biochemistry alone. While the molecular bases for cancer are understood to some extent, for instance, it is nonetheless impossible to accurately predict if a person with a mutation in, say, his or her BRCA1 gene will definitely contract breast cancer because a whole multitude of factors exist between the genomic spatial scale and the spatial scale of the individual person. Whether or not a person will or will not contract cancer, as in this example, cannot simply be reduced to effects of the individual’s genotype because a host of environmental factors exist that interact at various spatial scales – from the cytosolic environment to the extracellular matrix environment to the organ-level environment to the individual’s external surroundings – the conditions governing interactions at each of these spatial scales change due to factors that cannot be predicted from the genotype level alone. Even at macroscopic scales, the biological interactions that occur within a forest comprising several populations of different species cannot be reduced to the interactions that occur within a single population of a single species since novel interactions such as interspecies competition, symbiosis and parasitism may emerge as the result of interactions between different species. Moreover, not only is it impossible to predict macro-scale phenomena from micro-scale events, the exponential increase in stochasticity from one level of spatial organisation to another means that, if two parallel experiments were run with the same initial starting conditions, the final outcomes would nonetheless be drastically different. This is why twins, for all their genetic and socio-economic similarities, rarely ever end up as exact mirrors of one another. Complexity and stochasticity are what confound attempts at reductionistic thinking and in a world as complex as the one we live in, it is simply impossible to assert that all life can be understood from a purely molecular basis. Although this does not, I must reiterate, mean that molecular explanations for biological phenomena are wrong, it does mean that molecular explanations are only effective to a certain extent depending on the spatial scale involved. This is why biomolecular interactions are not further reduced to the quantum-level interactions of subatomic particles – to use quantum physics to try to explain signal transduction would tell you absolutely nothing about signal transduction even though the process of cell signalling can ultimately be reduced to the probabilistic mechanisms of the wave function and the Schrödinger Equation.
To say, therefore, that a biomolecular perspective renders conservation as we know it irrelevant is in itself a meaningless statement because to do so would be to apply a needlessly reductionistic explanation that can do naught but confound the matter even further. More importantly, however, to even argue that conservation can be understood in its entirety through the lens of a single ‘perspective’ is to ignore the fact that conservation is an issue that spans across a wide variety of disciplines and domains. While it is common to assume that conservation involves arriving at a deep understanding of the biological interactions between organisms and their environment (both molecular and ecological), it is important to realise that conservation also cuts across social, economic and even legal concerns as well. Whether or not actions ought to be taken to conserve a specific habitat (e.g. Bukit Brown) or species (e.g. the Gurney’s Pitta) depends also on the political will, economic impetus and even the legal feasibility for conservation. For an issue as complex as this, asserting that conservation can be understood in its entirely from a biomolecular perspective is just as meaningless as arguing that conservation can be completely understood from an exclusively legal, economic or even geographical perspective. Rather than try to understand conservation through the lens of a single discipline or field, it would instead be more productive to adopt a holistic perspective that tries to integrate the various disciplines and domains involved. Only by adopting a multidisciplinary approach can the true nature of our natural heritage be understood, and only then can effective solutions be proposed and undertaken.
Conservation is not a simple issue. It is an issue as complex as it is pressing and it is an issue that spans across a broad array of disciplines and domains of knowledge. In this sense, conservation is not an issue that is easily understood and as the concerns of environmental conservation become increasingly prominent in public discourse, so too will the danger of misconceptions arising from apathy or purposeful deception become more acute. Indeed, as the cacophony of voices purporting to speak for conservation and the environment continue to grow ever louder and more pervasive, it becomes increasingly more tempting and convenient to sit back and simply accept what we are being told instead of critically examining the ideas and arguments being bandied about. And although a vast majority of these voices do indeed speak truthfully, the fact of the matter is that it is now all too easy to pay lip service to an idea we do not understand, for the cause of the environment and our natural heritage to be rendered as nothing more than the high-minded platitudes of the modern day wet liberal. To adopt this sense of unthinking conviction would therefore make us just as susceptible to the insidious depredations of those lesser minds who, for ideological reasons or otherwise, would seek to detract from the importance of environmental conservation with their fallacious, if seemingly convincing arguments. The argument that conservation is rubbish is at its most persuasive only when we are too ignorant to even question its basic premises. While this does not mean that pro-conservation arguments are themselves infallible, it does mean that we must be mindful of the ideas we accept as truth and think critically about the ideas that are presented to us as truth. Conservation is only rubbish when we advocate it without truly knowing what it is.