Why we must protect endangered animals
In the article, “Let the polar bears die, liberals: It’s only your beloved evolution at work” author S.E. Cupp argues that if polar bears (or any other single species) are on track for extinction, we should not interfere. At one point Cupp asserts that protecting an endangered animal would be meddling with evolution:
“The crass and sometimes violent coming and going of species proves evolution’s central logic. So why, then, do polar bear activists insist that another species – that would be us – tamper with Darwin’s grand design and swoop in to save an animal that simply wasn’t fit enough to make it in the cutthroat world of biological survival?”
I disagree with Cupp that we should forgo the protection of endangered animals in favor of allowing threatened wildlife to become extinct. Further, the argument that wildlife conservation intrudes on evolution is fallacious, and exposes Cupp’s fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, natural selection and artificial selection.
To take a step back, understanding the difference between evolution, natural selection and human-caused (or artificial) selection is crucial before considering whether to conserve wildlife. Natural selection and evolution are not synonymous. Simply put, evolution occurs when a population changes over time in response to pressure from the environment. Natural selection is how changes can accumulate in an evolving population. As a result of natural selection, individuals with certain traits survive and reproduce at the expense of their peers. Evolution by natural selection happens very slowly, as living things respond to their environment over hundreds to thousands of years.
Artificial selection, also known as selective breeding or human-caused selection, was first described by Charles Darwin to distinguish the process from natural selection. As opposed to natural selection, in which the environment acts as a sieve through which only certain variations can pass, in artificial selection humans favor specific traits and direct their persistence. Artificial selection — which Cupp mistakenly refers to as “evolution” — is not the result of random, unpredictable events like weather or natural disasters, but is a direct result of our behavior.
Humans have drastically altered the appearance of animals and plants within a few generations by way of artificial selection. Consider the creation of hundreds of distinct dog breeds selected and maintained by humans within the past 150 years or the directed transformation of teosinte into modern cultivars of corn for food. The rapid evolution of such radical changes in structure and function are unheard of with natural selection.
While it’s true that we have loaded the atmosphere with an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide and global temperatures are changing as a result, it is not true that we have no control over the situation. Further, the extreme changes in the composition of atmosphere have taken place within the past 2oo years — a pace exclusive to artificial selection. When humans accelerate change with artificial selection, the participants of natural selection can, understandably, not keep up.
As humans we have the ability to understand cause and effect. We are able to think about consequences, make responsible choices about how to behave and when to change the way we do things. The same cannot be said for nature with its weather and natural disasters. As sentient beings with a conscience and the ability to make premeditated decisions, it is our responsibility to maintain our planet for future generations — both human and animal.