Sep 11 2017

PETA’s Counterproductive Attack on Young Researcher

PETA_Protest_onlineIn North America house sparrows are a menace. They are an invasive species introduced in the 19th century, and have established themselves as a large population. Unfortunately they do so by displacing many local species, such as blue birds. They are cavity nesters and will use up many of the prime nesting spots before migratory native birds get a chance. Their presence reduces the population of many native species.

Birders have a special disdain for house sparrows and European starlings (another invasive species). They are both a threat to bird biodiversity. They are also not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which means it is legal to remove their nests and even to capture and euthanize them (you can then donate them to raptor refugees for food). Many birding enthusiasts recommend active measures to control house sparrows and minimize their impact on native species.

Partly for these reasons house sparrows are an ideal target for scientific research. They can be legally captured, and the research will then serve the extra added small benefit of removing house sparrows from the wild.

All of this makes it all the more ironic that PETA has chosen to target a young researcher (a post-doc) for harassment due to her research on house sparrows. Really, PETA, you have chosen the wrong subject to defend, the pests of the birding world.

The irony does not stop there. Christine Lattin, the post-doc in question, is an animal-lover herself. She is researching stress on captured birds to better understand how different bird species respond to stress. She hopes this research will lead to more effective management of rescued birds. Lattin laments herself:

 “I’m trying to reduce the number of animals used in research, protect endangered species, and help animals in general,” she says. “I think we could find common ground.”

So PETA has chosen as their villain du jour a young researcher who is just trying to protect animals, and as their poster-child of animal rights the asshole of the birding world. That is some solid PR work there.

But of course it gets worse. PETA is now also using all the worst tactics of social media trolls, aligning themselves in behavior with the worst elements of our society. As Science reports:

Then the protests began. In mid-June, about 20 activists—most PETA employees—demonstrated outside a conference building in Long Beach, California, where Lattin was presenting her work. Signs read: “Christine Lattin: Stop Torturing Birds!” A month later, posters appeared across Yale urging the university to shut down Lattin’s work, and more than a dozen PETA supporters held signs on a busy street corner in downtown New Haven, Connecticut. And in August, PETA posted a video on its Facebook page featuring ominous music and pictures of Lattin overlaid with text claiming that she lured birds from the wild to torture them. The video received nearly a million views, and protesters demonstrated again, this time outside Lattin’s research building. PETA is organizing another protest—outside Lattin’s home—on 13 September. It has shared her home address and a Google map of her location with its supporters.

They are protesting at her work and her home. She is getting daily death threats and harassment. She is currently living in fear for her family, including her young child.

As evidence that this campaign will likely not have the intended effect PETA hopes for, just read the comments to the article on Science’s Facebook page. They are mostly critical of PETA (yes, I know, a self-selective group) and hit many of the proper themes of this criticism. They point out that PETA is hypocritical, choosing the wrong target, and employing radical methods that just relegate them to the fringe.

I think the comments accurately capture why this campaign will likely backfire. PETA’s efforts serve to undermine the very cause they claim to promote.

The fact is, most intellectuals and researchers, like Lattin, support animals rights and the ethical treatment of animals. That is the mainstream of opinion on this issue, and it has been institutionalized. All animal researchers must be trained and certified on the proper treatment of animals in their care. PETA wants to move further in the direction of animal protection. I understand that, and I do not fault them for advocating for their ethical position (even though I disagree with it).

I strongly disagree with PETA’s tactics, however. It is supremely self-righteous. They are so convinced not only that they are correct, but that they have the moral high ground and those who disagree with them are evil. Some of the e-mails to Lattin make this clear:

 “You should kill yourself, you sick bitch!” Then the messages on Facebook and Twitter: “What you’re doing is so sick and evil.” “I hope someone throws you into the fire …”

I understand that sometimes in order to make meaningful social change you have to get attention and take extreme action. But that should always be a careful judgement, not a knee-jerk reaction. Not everything deserves all out social war. You can also try to change minds through debate and discussion. If you think you are correct, your ideas should speak for themselves. Ideas can be more persuasive than protest, if you are actually in the right.

PETA, however, does not act like an organization with a thoughtful ethical position, dedicated to changing society for the better. They act like a group of misguided fanatics most concerned about feeding their own sense of self-righteousness. The current debacle is not just a miscalculation on their part – it is a reflection of their core problems.

I also think that PETA acts out of desperation because they are not in a strong ethical position. They are not right, and that is ultimately why they have a hard time convincing many people.

All animals do not deserve the same rights. Their frequent claims of – we don’t do this to humans so why would we do it to animals – just doesn’t resonate with many people. It’s because animals are not people.

We should afford some rights to animals and we should treat them humanely. Those rights should be in proportion to their sentience, which I think is an ethically reasonable position. We slaughter billions of bacteria each time we take antibiotics to fight an infection, and no one worries (or should worry) about killing so many organisms.

No one worries much about baiting hooks with worms, or exterminating termites.

However, the more neurologically sophisticated organisms are, the more they can experience their own existence, to experience suffering, the more protection they deserve. A sliding scale of rights and protections is therefore a reasonable ethical position, and I think where most people fall.

I also don’t think that simply killing animals is unethical, as long as they don’t suffer in the process. We should focus on minimizing stress and suffering, rather than worry that they are ultimately sacrificed. Death is part of the experience of all animals, and in fact most animals in the wild are going to suffer when they die. Most animals will end up as prey, or die from injury or disease.

In response to this argument when I have given it, some have responded that at least it is not by human hands. We are responsible for the death we bring, not death in the wild. I don’t find this argument very compelling, however. There is a small point here, but it fails to address the main issue – do you care about animal welfare, or only about our own culpability? Is this about feeling good, or protecting animals?

Further, we need to meaningfully address the question of what it means to protect animals. I honestly don’t think that most animals need to live meaningful fulfilling lives, because they are not capable of doing so. At best they can lead content lives free from suffering. If a cow’s existence consists of grazing and mating, and at one point that existence ends without stress or pain, I see no ethical problem with that.

Some animals are stressed by captivity, and that needs to be considered. Ironically, that is exactly the focus of Lattin’s research – she wants to better understand how different birds are stressed by captivity in hopes of minimizing that stress.

This brings us back to how PETA’s efforts are so misguided that they are unethical on many levels, and if anything are counterproductive to the cause of protecting animals. And if you disagree with this position, have the courage of your conviction to defend your ideas, rather than resort to harassing and trolling people who disagree with you.

 

 

41 responses so far

41 Responses to “PETA’s Counterproductive Attack on Young Researcher”

  1. MWSlettenon 11 Sep 2017 at 8:30 am

    >you can then donate them to rapture refugees for food.

    I never thought I’d see Steven advocating animal sacrifices to rapture fetishists… Tsk, tsk.

  2. fbrosseaon 11 Sep 2017 at 8:48 am

    It’s always interesting to think of animal welfare in empirical terms. It’s a lot more productive than the projections and false equivalencies used when debating animal welfare. You often hear people comparing animals dying to some of the major human rights violations that have occurred in our history.

    I like the information but together in this chicken vet’s blog on the three main measure of animal welfare: biological measures, environmental measures, and natural living. These three are often at odds with one another, especially when natural living is concerns. Nature is not a Disney movie and often times a natural death is slow an painful.

  3. fbrosseaon 11 Sep 2017 at 8:49 am

    Sorry, I mis-posted the link. The blog is: https://mikethechickenvet.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/response-to-activist-video-follow-up/

  4. mufion 11 Sep 2017 at 9:25 am

    Not a PETA fan, either, but a more thoughtful animal advocate might object that, if we “should focus on minimizing stress and suffering”, then does “researching stress on captured birds to better understand how different bird species respond to stress” really live up to that standard?

    It sounds from the article linked above that Lattin’s work is relatively non-invasive (“She mixed small amounts of oil into the food of wild house sparrows (Passer domesticus) or “biopsy punched” their legs under anesthesia, and then measured changes in their stress hormones”), which speaks to your point about her being an awkward target for protest.

    But, generally speaking, I think it’s fair to say that animal research does not normally “minimize stress and suffering” in its lab subjects: rather, it sacrifices their comfort as a means to some desirable end. It’s possible for thoughtful people to disagree about that practice, especially in the details of how it’s implemented.

  5. DevoutCatalyston 11 Sep 2017 at 10:03 am

    House sparrows and European starlings have long been naturalized in North America, are they not a part of the biodiversity? A threat to bluebirds, really? All North American bluebird species have the same conservation status — Least Concern. I won’t lose any sleep if birders kill a few house sparrows yet it is unclear to me what they hope to achieve.

    According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,

    “After becoming common in North American cities, House Sparrows moved out to colonize farmyards and barns during the twentieth century. With the recent industrialization of farms, House Sparrows now seem to be declining across most of their range.”

  6. roadfoodon 11 Sep 2017 at 10:43 am

    I cannot even pretend to imagine how horrible it would be to find myself targeted by the likes of Peta. Their tactics are deplorable. My heat goes out to Christine Lattin. And thank you, Steve, for meeting this head on and calling Peta out, I’m sure you have opened yourself up to being a target as well.

  7. Steven Novellaon 11 Sep 2017 at 11:13 am

    mufi – minimizing stress and suffering has to be put into context. This does not mean zero stress, just the lest amount possible given other considerations,like the needs of research. This further requires that the animals sacrificed were worth it for the knowledge gained in the research. there are standards for this.

  8. RevShawnon 11 Sep 2017 at 12:02 pm

    not surprised at all.

    I live near their headquarters in Norfolk, VA. which, by the way, is a high kill shelter…….

    a couple of their employees actually stole a dog off a porch that ended up being euthanized by them..

    I refer to them as People Embarrassing the Tidewater Area..

  9. Willyon 11 Sep 2017 at 12:24 pm

    PETA: people eating tasty animals

  10. mufion 11 Sep 2017 at 1:27 pm

    Dr. Novella: I presume that animal activists are aware of that context, but still reject the premise that the end justifies the means in this case.

    Again, not saying I agree with them: just that researchers face more than charges of killing sentient creatures; they also face charges of torturing them – albeit, in their pursuit of knowledge – knowledge that might be used to relieve suffering in other sentient creatures (first and foremost, humans).

  11. BBBlueon 11 Sep 2017 at 1:34 pm

    My first reaction to this issue was wow, I have legally (under depredation permit) killed thousands of sparrows and linnets by baiting, trapping and shooting over the years in an effort to protect grape crops and PETA is making a big deal out of a few sparrows sacrificed for science? There are also non-lethal methods for hazing or harassing birds in an agricultural setting that produces a lot of stress, it fact, that is sort of the point of those methods. However, I realize that stating many more birds are stressed or killed for reasons other than well-meaning research is not a valid counter argument to PETA’s claims based on ethics.

    PETA focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: in the food industry, in the clothing trade, in laboratories, and in the entertainment industry. We also work on a variety of other issues, including the cruel killing of rodents, birds, and other animals who are often considered “pests” as well as cruelty to domesticated animals. https://www.peta.org/about-peta/

    I don’t have a particular problem with their mission, but it seems to be one that has conveyed a holier-than-thou attitude PETA uses to justify causing harm to humans. We shouldn’t expect PETA to see the benefits of research that involves the sacrifice of even one animal and thereby adopt a more balanced approach in their efforts, but I agree, they certainly should be called out for the harm and misery they are causing Dr. Lattin and her family.

  12. MikeBon 11 Sep 2017 at 3:28 pm

    I will try to fix something for you:

    In North America human beings are a menace. They are an invasive species introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries, and have established themselves as a large population. Unfortunately they do so by displacing many local species, such as passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, and heath hens. They are house builders and will use up many of the prime habitats before migratory native birds get a chance. Their presence reduces the population of many native species.

  13. MikeBon 11 Sep 2017 at 3:28 pm

    Apologies to native Americans.

  14. Steven Novellaon 11 Sep 2017 at 3:59 pm

    Mike – I agree. Humans are the worst invasive species on the planet with devastating effects on the environment and all other species. We also transport other invasive species with us, with rats probably being the worst. We have caused a literal mass extinction that is still unfolding, and there is no telling how bad it will get.

    I don’t think this has any effect on my position, however. If you think it does you need to make your logic more explicit.

  15. Steven Novellaon 11 Sep 2017 at 4:00 pm

    We should, however, worry about an alien species visiting the Earth and concluding that humans are a neurologically limited invasive and destructive species.

  16. FreemanNgon 11 Sep 2017 at 4:26 pm

    MikeB, you need not apologize to all Native Americans. There have probably been thousands of different native tribes in the Americas, and they had vastly different cultures. Many fit the common modern stereotype of peaceful, ecologically benign societies, but others — not all, and maybe not even most, but some — were invasive in pretty militaristic ways. Just like human societies across the world are now.

  17. Bill Openthalton 11 Sep 2017 at 4:40 pm

    The problem is that PETA, many vegans and other similarly inclined people consider animals to have the same moral status as humans. Hence is it ethically as wrong to kill animals as it is to kill humans. That’s why they consider killing male chicks “murder”, and think that artificially inseminating a cow is “rape”. Like many dog owners who ascribe human sentiments to their pooches, they believe animal experiences parallel human experiences, consequently Lattin experimenting on sparrows is morally equivalent to Mengele experimenting on Jews.

    To paraphrase Dante, the gates of morality are inscribed with “Abandon all rationality, ye who enter here!”

  18. FreemanNgon 11 Sep 2017 at 4:45 pm

    It might have been worthwhile to repeat an observation made by the linked Science article, that the attack on Lattin represents a shift or escalation of PETA’s tactics in going after a researcher “much younger and less established than any scientist the group has singled out before.”

  19. Bill Openthalton 11 Sep 2017 at 5:05 pm

    All species are “invasive” if given half a chance. There is no balance in nature, only temporary truces. And even though humans are quite good at changing their environment, the planet and the solar system are much better at it. All that is currently separated will come together again, and all habitats will change in the process. Species will come and go, and affect their habitat to a lesser or larger extend, as they have done since life arose on the planet. We are not very special.

  20. Damojion 11 Sep 2017 at 7:22 pm

    My understanding is that the “young” researcher is 36 or 37. But more importantly, this is the oddest blog I’ve read in ages. This comment, “I honestly don’t think that most animals need to live meaningful fulfilling lives, because they are not capable of doing so” is in direct contradiction to a massive amount of scientific evidence that indeed birds and other animals find their own lives quite as meaningful as the blogger finds his.

    I looked into this experimenter’s studies. Shaking birds’ cages so they can’t perch and yelling at them is a funny way to show how much you care about birds. Did she ponder this at all? “How can I help birds? Hmmmm. I know! I’ll take them from their homes, scare the crap of them, punch holes in their legs, and kill them!”

    I’m not joining her pity party. I’ll save my compassion for the birds.

  21. BBBlueon 11 Sep 2017 at 8:15 pm

    Steve said: “worst invasive species”

    What justifies such a qualitative judgement? Hominids out of Africa were an invasive species. The ancestors of Native Americans were invasive. Does that make humans and other hominids the “worst” invasive species or just the most successful?

    What is the best condition, no invasive species? At exactly what epoch do we draw the line and say that is the optimal condition we should strive to preserve? Is the movement and redistribution of species bad when aided by humans and good if they occur “naturally” without human intervention?

  22. Steven Novellaon 12 Sep 2017 at 7:15 am

    BBBlue – in terms of destruction to other species and the ecosytem. Humans have no rival.

    No one is arguing for stasis. Evolution happens, mixing happens, species go extinct. But the rate of extinction and change under humans has been dramatically increased. I am not arguing there is anything objectively wrong with this (there may be) – but you can make a reasonable argument that we might not want to do this to the planet on which we live for various reasons.

  23. Steven Novellaon 12 Sep 2017 at 7:19 am

    Damoji – Can you link to any studies which show that birds lead fulfilling lives? Are they aware of their own mortality? Do they need to have a sense of accomplishment to be happy? And further, that this is at the same level as humans?

    I acknowledge that some animals have feelings and they should be respected and treated ethically – just not at the same level as humans. I think cows are perfectly content just grazing.

  24. Damojion 12 Sep 2017 at 1:18 pm

    Steven –

    There’s a wealth of studies documenting bird cognition, emotion, and intelligence. Here are just a few:

    1. Western scrub jays understand death and will warn others of a dead conspecific:

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347212003569?via%3Dihub

    2. Emotional contagion is considered a basic component of human social cognition and empathy in behavioral studies. This study demonstrates synchronized play among ravens that demonstrates emotional contagion:

    http://www.animalbehaviorandcognition.org/uploads/journals/2/09.Osvath_Sima_Final.pdf

    3. Hens modify their responses to threats to their chicks based on cues from their chicks and their own knowledge of the situation, demonstrating an ability to integrate knowledge and produce adaptive responses:

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347213002054?via%3Dihub

    4. Contagious yawning has been documented in mammalian species (including humans) as a marker of empathic behavior. This study shows contagious yawning in budgerigars:

    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-015-0873-1

    5. Crows show analogical reasoning, an ability shared with humans and apes, in using tools to solve problems:

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982207017708

    6. Ravens understand and remember “fair” and “unfair” behavior

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347217301161?via%3Dihub

    Also, I would question the assertion that bird emotion and life fulfillment must be on the same level as a humans. That seems to me to be a very arbitrary statement that is impossible to back up. What is fulfillment? Ask ten humans and you will get ten different answers. Some humans are not capable of leading a life as “fulfilled” as others, depending on one’s definition of fulfillment. For a bird, there is no evidence that shows that their life is not as meaningful to them as ours is to us, even though we may define differently what the “fulfillment” looks like. Animals certainly have an understanding of their own mortality and actively try to preserve their lives.

  25. AnnieMcon 12 Sep 2017 at 4:48 pm

    We’re not talking about a fresh faced, innocent, 18 yr. old college student here. A self-described animal and bird lover harms and kills the very animals she claims to love. I feel like this is an opportunity to find more humane ways to study these animals. And just as a side note, we humans are the most invasive and destructive species on the planet, so being “invasive” is not a good argument to cause harm to these birds.

  26. Mazzaon 13 Sep 2017 at 12:12 am

    Steven, while I respect your opinions on the matter, it is clear you are not aware of the immense amount of animal welfare research being performed. Yes, neurologically advanced organisms certainly experience the world in a manner much as we do, however, if neurological advancement is the only criteria by which we should judge the value of a life, then there should be no ethical problems in euthanizing humans that are neurologically deficient. Surely they cannot live fulfilled lives, nor are there studies to prove that they can live fulfilling lives. If the only ethical issue regarding killing animals is that an animal be euthanized humanely, then there should be no ethical issues with adopting puppies during the cute phase, euthanizing them (humanely of course) when they outgrow the cute phase, and then getting a new cute puppy to love. Disposable animals will be all the rage.
    Neurological advancement does not necessarily correlate with the ability to suffer. Studies indicate that even invertebrates may have the capacity to feel pain and suffer. So yes, there ARE people that worry about the worm being used as bait. It is an area of research that should not be so quickly discounted due to them being “lower class” organisms.
    Ultimately, I agree with your main point and feel that PETA does not use scientifically based reasonings in regards to promoting animal welfare. In fact, they really are not an animal welfare organization but are an animal rights organization, a distinction that should be made. However, your post shows a shocking disregard for any value of animal life and I certainly hope that you will research the issue further.

  27. BBBlueon 13 Sep 2017 at 12:22 am

    Steve: As we know, humans slowly migrated and filled most of the niches they occupy today long, long ago. That is simply an evolutionary and biological success story. What we are experiencing today and what we can do about is mostly a matter of population growth, and population control.

    I would not begrudge the human race its ability to occupy many niches so much as I would it’s desire to procreate beyond reasonable limits.

  28. Bill Openthalton 13 Sep 2017 at 2:45 am

    BBBlue —
    All organisms procreate until reined in by their environment. What humans are trying to do is prevent the massive die-back that results when an organism manages to deplete its environment because it lacks predators. Elephants (absent humans) suffer from the same problem.

    Humans first outsmarted the physical world, then managed to outsmart their predators, and now have to outsmart the driving force of evolution — reproductive success.

  29. kevinfoltaon 13 Sep 2017 at 7:06 am

    Thank you Steve. This story needs as much exposure as possible. Postdocs are our greatest resource and we work so hard to raise their careers. That means we have to vigorously defend them too when necessary. Thank you for writing this.

  30. BBBlueon 13 Sep 2017 at 12:51 pm

    Bill said: “All organisms procreate until reined in by their environment.”

    Aren’t humans the exception? Don’t we have a unique ability to consciously rein ourselves in?

    I bristle a bit when people say things like “Humans are the worst invasive species.” The same traits that have allowed us to flourish in many niches are also those that will allow us to become stewards of those niches.

    We may actually be the best invasive species in that we are able to consciously mitigate our impact on the environments we occupy. The test is whether we do that or not.

  31. Bill Openthalton 13 Sep 2017 at 5:10 pm

    BBBlue —

    I don’t think humans have a conscious ability to stop procreating. Individuals can forego procreation for what they believe a greater goal, but to get the species as a whole to decide to go slow on procreation simply by a common conscious decision?

    I think humans can observe the effects of the subconscious mental processes that drive them, but that modifying those processes through the conscious part of the mind is touch and go (cf. the problems humans have when making a conscious, evidence-based decision to eat less). Processes fundamental to the survival of the species are too important to yield easily to conscious control.

    What can be done, and is done (though not through a reasoned, conscious decision) is to manipulate the environment to influence the subconscious decision making that is experienced by humans as “love” and “child-wish”. During childhood, the human subconscious mind analyses the environment to calibrate the processes that decide whether the individual is thriving, which clues signal (relative) scarcity and abundance of resources, what needs to be achieved to become an adult in society, etc. Just like we have a language instinct, we have a socialisation instinct. That is why one part of an identical twin could grow up in New York to become a stockbroker, and the other part a hunter in the Amazonian rainforest.

    Because bearing and rearing children is a high-risk and resource-intensive business, humans will not feel a strong urge to procreate when they are not adults and/or when resources are perceived to be scarce — but what is adulthood and what are sufficient resources is based on the clues discovered during childhood. That’s why today in the Western world, many people put off having children until they’re in their thirties (when they have the degree, the job, the car, the condo and the money).

    Of course, the biological clock ticks, which explains why advancing age triggers a desire for procreation (especially in females) — if the circumstances aren’t right when a human female is 35, it’s unlikely they’ll improve, so procreation in less than ideal circumstances is better than no procreation at all.

  32. Steven Novellaon 14 Sep 2017 at 8:05 am

    BBBlue – actually, humans did a great deal of harm to local ecosystems when they migrated there, long before modern technology and population growth. This is probably mainly through also importing predators like rats, who decimated local species. Hunting also played a role. As humans spread around the world, they brought ecological destruction in their wake. This is uncontroversial.

  33. Steven Novellaon 14 Sep 2017 at 8:09 am

    Damoji – none of those studies show the same level of cognition as humans, which is what you claimed and what I challenged you to produce.

    But to be clear, so you don’t strawman my position – I think birds, and especially some bird groups like Jays, are very smart. I also believe they deserve a high level of protection. They should not be tortured, for example. (I don’t think that causing stress is “torture”.)

    I do think, however, that it is ethically acceptable to humanely kill birds when necessary or for good cause.

    They deserve some thoughtful protections – but not the same level of rights as humans.

  34. Steven Novellaon 14 Sep 2017 at 8:16 am

    Mazza – the flaw in your logic is that you are taking a criterion applied to species and then applying it to discriminate individuals. Further, you are falsely assuming I said that neurological sophistication was the only criterion, when I didn’t.

    There are many reasons to afford all human beings a certain amount of dignity, respect, and rights. There are important ethical principles involved. I do not believe, nor have ever claimed, that humans lose their rights if they are not neurologically injured or impaired.

    Having said that, it is reasonable and perfectly ethical to withdraw care from someone and let them die if they are severely and permanently neurologically injured.

    With regard to killing dogs when then exit their cute phase, that is a massive straw man. I never argued that dogs deserve no protections. We should treat them humanely, and that includes not killing them for frivolous reasons. That is completely different from humanely sacrificing a mammal for worthwhile medical research. You could never get killing dogs when they stop being cute passed an animal research ethics board.

  35. BBBlueon 14 Sep 2017 at 10:53 am

    “…humans did a great deal of harm to local ecosystems when they migrated there”

    Harm, or did they mostly just change those local ecosystems? I think of harm as making a place generally less habitable; polluting a water supply, for instance. Sure, rats displaced native species, but those niches remained habitable. Did the dodo going extinct harm the ecosystem of Mauritius, or did it just change it? I don’t think change and harm are necessarily synonymous.

    Certainly, the invasive nature of humans is not required to harm an ecosystem, just look at what they have wrought without the help of Europeans in Africa.

    I tend not to attribute the harm done by humans to the fact we have successfully migrated and occupied just about every environment that can be occupied, I attribute the harm we have caused to us being stupid apes at times.

  36. edamameon 14 Sep 2017 at 3:18 pm

    Damoji:

    My understanding is that the “young” researcher is 36 or 37.

    She is a postdoc, so is early in her career.

  37. Charonon 15 Sep 2017 at 1:14 am

    And it should be emphasized, postdoc is about the most vulnerable time in one’s career. You have to get positive attention quickly as you look for a permanent job. Fortunately PETA is mostly a laughingstock these days, but even so this kind of controversy could injure her chances to stay in academia (what university wants negative attention at this level, even from kooks?).

  38. Steven Novellaon 15 Sep 2017 at 7:06 am

    Reducing biodiversity is reasonably considered harm. Half of the land on earth is farmland. That represents massive habitat loss. Dramatically reducing biodiversity so that rats can spread around the world is reasonably considered harm.

    Even if we put aside the point of whether or not any of this can be considered harm or just change (but I think you are on thin ice there), we still need to consider what kind of planet we want to have.

    I don’t blame humans for just doing what they do. This is not really about blame or shame. But now that we are pushing up against the resource limits of our own and only planet, and we have more knowledge about our impact on the world, I think it is reasonable to think carefully about our footprint and the impact we have on other life.

  39. BBBlueon 15 Sep 2017 at 1:00 pm

    I concede that I am on thin ice, and maybe my comments come more from emotion than reason, but I don’t think that humans deserve all of the guilt they often seem to exhibit when describing their environmental impact.

    Is New York City a blight on the environment or a wonderful and positive example of what humans can accomplish? I suppose one can say “both.”

  40. Bill Openthalton 15 Sep 2017 at 8:47 pm

    I am with BBBlue here. Humans are just another species, doing what it does because of a mindless process that stumbled onto smarts like it previously stumbled onto size. Or huge amounts of eggs. Or long necks.
    Humans have the problem that they can be aware of their actions, and the (understandable) problem of considering themselves special. At first, this lead them to think they were the rightful rulers of the planet. Now it seems more comfortable to believe humans are uniquely bad rather than to accept they’re really just part of nature.

  41. Sarahon 16 Sep 2017 at 12:28 pm

    I’d say both, BBB. We can acknowledge the beauty of accomplishment while lamenting the loss at once.

    Bill – I think you, like a lot of people, are mistaking this for a value judgement. When I acknowledge the damage done to the environment, I don’t blame people, I blame statistics. Some rare examples of individual action exist – corruption leading to mass contamination, for instance – but by and large our impact has indeed been natural. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with human beings, but we have to acknowledge that our great success comes at a cost to others. As they are proportionally less sapient, their rights are proportionally less valid, but it’s nonzero.

    I think there’s a balance to be struck between accomplishment and environmental stewardship, and it’s one we are now able to perceive and care about.

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