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All species have an inherent right to exist; not just cute ones

2012 September 11

All species have an inherent right to exist, insist the 8,000 scientists from the International Union for Conservation of Nature who have just compiled a list of the world’s 100 most endangered species. Since all the life-forms listed are unique and irreplaceable, they argue, there is an ethical imperative which places on society an obligation to save them.

But is this so? Many feel certainly feel that way when the animal concerned is cute or cuddly. And there is a clear logic to ensuring the survival of those species which are of demonstrable use to humankind. But where does that leave the three-toed pygmy sloth, of which only 500 remain on an island off the coast of Panama where they are easy prey for local fishermen and lobster divers?

Certainly we are not sentimental about the eradication of some species – the smallpox virus, for example, or the mosquito which carries the deadly malaria micro-organism. An absolutist position would protect them. According to Dr Sarah Chan, of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at Manchester University, it would even place upon us an obligation, when it is technically possible, to resurrect long-gone species like the dinosaur.

Extinction is a natural phenomenon not an ethical one. But there is a difference between natural extinctions and those driven by the behaviour of humans. All the rare mammals, plants and fungi on the endangered 100 list are at risk because their habitats are appropriated for human use. A clearer case can be made for our moral obligation to preserve for future generations the species we inherited.

There are good grounds to question a utilitarian “what can nature do for us”  approach. Nature is more than a commodity which can be valued and placed in  marketplace for its disposal to the highest bidder. In any case, such is the nature of scientific discovery that we cannot afford to be dismissive of the utility of the brightly-coloured Willow Blister fungus which grows only on trees in Pembrokeshire and whose habitat is being squeezed. It may well have a use of which we as yet are ignorant. If it becomes extinct we will never know.

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