February 16, 2010

Darwin Days: Conserving Biodiversity

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“Why should we care about biodiversity and saving nature?” asked Prof. Harry W. Greene, ecology and evolutionary biology, at his Feb. 11 seminar “Saving all the Pieces: Evolutionary Benchmarks for Conservation.” According to Greene, we should turn to Charles Darwin for the answer.

Greene argues that his theory, “Descent with Modification,” is the main reason to save nature. Descent with Modification refers to the concept that while present day species differ from ancestral species, all life is related.

Greene believes that shared ancestry inspires sublime emotion. “When you combine this evolutionary heritage and the details of natural history you inspire biologically sublime aesthetics,” he said.

Despite its aesthetic value, however, nature meets increasing trouble. Many species of animals face extinction. Scientists like Greene suggest that it is one of the biggest problems for North American ecology today. “The biggest change in North American ecology in the last 20,000 years was the loss of 58 species of mammals at the end of the Pleistocene [the epoch from 2.588 million to 12,000 years ago],” he said. Among the animals lost were the Bolson Tortoise, the Pleistocene Cheetah, and more than six species of elephant.

To counter the extinction threat, Greene and his team proposed a controversial three-stage “recovery” mission.

For the first stage, Greene proposes that certain “docile” species, such as horses and camels that no longer reside in North America, be returned and be encouraged to repopulate the area where they once thrived. The second stage of the mission is similar to the first, but involves more dangerous animals, like cheetahs, lions and elephants.

The animals would be returned to North America and placed under naturalistic regimes. They may live in confined natural environments, surrounded by fences. Greene hopes to “see how they do there,” and slowly adjust them back to North America.

The third, and according to Greene, most controversial stage of the mission, includes designing ecological history parks with mega herbivores and large carnivores without zoo-like enclosures. Though Greene admits that this stage is dangerous and may not occur in his lifetime, his mission has earned great support. Opinionated journalists, like Lou Dobbs and Nicholas Kristof, morally backed Greene’s mission, and as many as 70% of the people surveyed on an MSNBC poll supported the idea.

Despite support for the plan, criticism remains widespread. Greene quoted one anonymous critic as saying “Pleistocene re-wilding is only slightly more sensationalized than Jurassic Park,” and another as saying “People won’t tolerate wolves and grizzlies, so they certainly won’t tolerate lions and elephants.”

Greene worries about the latter comment. He believes that fear and the concept of Nimbyism (Not In My Back Yard) may off the “deal breaker and the reason why Pleistocene Re-wilding won’t happen in this area.”

Greene remains hopeful. “With education and research, I think it often is possible to find programs, and to find ways for people to interface with dangerous animals,” he said.

Original Author: Maria Minsker