Whose right to life?

We in S104 have all been assigned a primate species to research. We are then to have a discussion and decide which of the primate species we would prioritise for conservation, and why.

The species are: Pongo abelii (the Sumatran orangutan); Colobus angolensis (the Angola colobus); Leontopithecus rosalia (the golden lion tamarin); Eulemur coronatus (the crowned lemur); and Tarsius dentatus (Dian’s tarsier).

I’m not sure yet which species I would prioritise for conservation, but the discussion on the tutor group forum has raised some interesting points – scientific and philosophical.

When discussing the orangutan, in particular, mention was made of its conflict with humans. The Sumatran orangutan is classed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List with a decreasing population, and little hope for improvement at present. The major threats to the species are legal and illegal logging; a new road which, if approved, will further fragment the sparse populations; and competition with humans for resources.

One student said that the human populations have a right to live there, raise families and make money. Perhaps. “Human rights” are much talked about, and for the most part, our laws and customs are necessary and enshrined in our basic codes of behaviour for good reason.

However, human rights are a human construct: what marks us out as so special? It is difficult to view the world from a non-human-centred viewpoint, but sometimes this is worth trying. When looked at objectively and in a detached manner, it is not so simple.

Why should humanity have more “right” to resources than any other species? What about other species’ “right” to existence?

It has been suggested that other species, competing with us for resources, have a case to answer as to their right to survival. “Does it really matter if tigers survive?” asked a devil’s advocate? I would argue that, yes, it does matter. And not just because tigers are beautiful, majestic creatures; but because their disappearance may have far-reaching consequences for humanity. And, in any case, who are we to decide?

If we are competing in so many areas for limited resources, that does rather suggest that the problem lies within human populations. Our world is vastly over-populated – we are not just fighting other species for survival, we are fighting each other. Only by stabilising our own population growth can we begin to make any inroads into stabilising the world’s ecosystems.

Education is essential: both in the West and in the developing world. If we do not control our own populations, nature has a tendency to redress the balance. By studying animal populations, we can make predictions as to what may happen in our own populations: overcrowding breeds disease; overuse of antibiotics is producing many new strains of resistant bacteria; competition for resources starts wars.

Extinction, like death, is part of life and nature; there’s no denial there. Some species reach an evolutionary dead end. Some may argue that the mass extinctions we are facing are “natural”; I would disagree. Humanity is consuming resources so quickly and on such an unprecedented scale, that the world is shuddering in the face of too many changes. We are not just threatening other species – we are threatening ourselves. Perhaps this would not be such a bad thing for the planet; but people are (can be) amazing, wonderful creatures and we owe ourselves so much more.

The answer is not simple, and like almost everything else in life, the debate is not black and white. If conservation is to work – and it is a worthwhile task! – it will need to involve everyone: from governments, conservation groups and concerned individuals to the indigenous human populations themselves. Change has to come from within, and education is key here.

If we can’t find a way to protect and preserve the creatures we share this world with, what hope is there for humanity to improve, grow and evolve?

If it were up to me, resources would be poured into the conservation of those endangered species that have been directly threatened by anthropogenic activity alone. We have no idea what effect mass extinctions may have on the planet, on human health and society. Even if we cannot appeal to those who care nothing for wildlife and conservation, surely there is an argument to be made regarding the potential benefits of species we are losing?

And leaving aside all that, our world is incredibly rich and beautiful. Take a look around, learn a little more about the creatures that we are on the brink of losing. That in itself is a good enough reason for conservation. And it’s worth some measure of sacrifice.


2 responses to “Whose right to life?

  1. Cracking stuff as usual – i’m really enjoying your wading into science.

    The interesting thing for me has always been whether we would choose to intervene if we saw another species having a similar impact on the planet as we chalk up for humans?

    That is – are we part of the environment or are we separate from it? Does our self awareness and ability to predict, and perhaps alter, the consequences of our actions mean we should?

    If we saw a ‘natural’ species ‘ruining’ its habitat and thereby destroying other species along the way, would we intervene or simply see it as part of nature. If not, why do we choose to single ourselves out?

    Or are we simply responsible for our own mess and no one else’s?

    (the logical conclusion to your question is therefore, of course, prioritise the cutest looking one)

    ; )


    • Thanks Dan! Glad you’re enjoying the blog. I’m really enjoying writing it – and my floundering in science. Currently I’m wading through a sea of deoxyribosenucleic acid, and being pushed around by proteins.

      You raise an interesting point about other species having the same kind of impact on the planet – would I intervene? Perhaps. But I see the difference between us and other species as… sentience? Intelligence? I’m not sure what word I’m looking for. But the crux of my argument would be: we know perfectly well what we’re doing to our planet. We know we should stop. And yet we keep consuming and consuming.

      If another species knew what it was doing, then yes – absolutely I would step in and try to stop it. However, other species are (as far as we know) oblivious to the wider implications of their actions. If more extinctions would occur because of the actions of a non-human species, an argument could be made for intervention; however, I see that as more of a natural extinction event.

      It’s really difficult to accurately define “natural” events; but I’m positive that the impact we’re having on our planet is anything but natural. Everything engineers its environment to a certain extent; but we go beyond that and destroy it wantonly.

      Things are going to have to change, for the survival of our species if not any others. I don’t hold out much hope for some of our creatures though. Thinking of polar bears makes me feel extremely sad.


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