Monday, March 31, 2008

A plague of frogs

I came across an interesting article in the newspaper this weekend. It was in the comics section, actually, as one of the local papers carries a section in the middle of the comics that's like a miniature newspaper for kids; you've probably seen them before.

Apparently, various species of frogs are going extinct at an alarming (to whom?) rate. According to the article, "Experts believe half of all frog species are now facing extinction." The culprits? Well, there are actually a number of factors, but apparently most of them tie in to global warming in some manner. The conclusion of the piece was essentially that it is our job as caretakers of the earth to do what we can to stop this massive frog genocide.

This reminded me of a question I've often pondered in one form or another. Let me give a disclaimer that I'm all for doing what we can to avoid damaging the environment. Frogs, along with so many other animals, are really great, and I think it's good to have them around for various reasons. But the question...well, it's really two questions, and the issue of how they interrelate.

#1 - Is there something inherently wrong with driving a species of animal to extinction?
#2 - Is it our responsibility to keep such a thing from happening?

See, while the disclaimers I give above hold, it seems to me that the answer to neither of these questions is self-evident. I examine here the specific case of frogs, since it was what drove me to question these assumptions again.

Suppose frogs simply disappeared from the face of the earth. There's nothing inherently great about frogs per se. One of the most vital items that is actually pointed out in the article is that frogs eat insects. Get rid of the frogs, and the insect population gets out of control. Now, aside from the fact that frogs obviously are eating insects that share their ecosystem, and if they died due to loss of a viable ecosystem, the insects probably are not to far behind, there are various problems with this still. Similar to the assumption that losing frogs is inherently bad is the assumption that gaining insects is inherently bad. How can we really place a value on one species over another?

Of course, the net effect goes beyond that. The bigger picture is that when a piece is taken out of the puzzle, well, it's sort of like the ecosystem is akin to a game like Jenga: if you pull out a piece, it may lead to a total collapse of the system. Insects grow out of control, and those animals that subsisted mainly on a diet of frogs will start to dwindle. The impact of the loss of the frogs has a ripple effect on everything around. But is this wrong? Nature has a tendency to restore that balance eventually. While in the short-term, chaos may reign, eventually either something else will eat the insects or the food supply of the insects will run short. Probably both.

Look, the dinosaurs died out, right? Science tells us that 65 million years ago, the dominant life form on the face of the earth went away. This was after existing as an order of life for 160 million years. During those millions of years, I don't know the numbers, but it is my understanding that wave after wave of species of dinosaur came to be extinct, only to be replaced by later generations of dinosaurs. Of course, once the last of the dinosaurs were gone (either completely wiped from existence or evolving into birds as some suspect), the world kept on going fine without them. Sure, I'd miss frogs because I have lived with them, but I somehow don't miss dinosaurs, mammoths, or dodos. Dinosaurs were definitely not wiped out by humans; dodos definitely were. Mammoths? Humans hunted them, but the final cause of their extinction is unknown. Does the manner of extinction make for more or less of a tragedy, and why?

Anyway, what I'm driving at is that whether or not a species may be dying out due to our own actions or due to natural changes beyond our control, in the end, species simply die. We can't say with complete accuracy when, but it seems to me that it's fair to say from an evolutionary standpoint that eventually every species existing today will cease to exist. For many, it will take millions of years, but for some others, I imagine they will die out within the next month or so, many due to no action on the part of humans. That's just nature.

Maybe you might want to argue that if we know or at least highly suspect that the imminent extinction of a species is due to our own poor choices, we might have a responsibility to clean up our own mess. I'd buy that from an emotional standpoint, but really, it's not much more than an emotional argument, is it?

Okay, let's talk penguins one more time. In the movie Happy Feet, (no major spoilers here, but maybe minor ones) the main character is a penguin who eventually realizes that part of the reason he and his fellow penguins can't find enough food is that there are these strange alien creatures (humans) that are eating all of the fish. He eventually decides that the best thing to do is try to communicate with the aliens, and convince them that the best thing to do is share the fish with everyone. The idea is sweet and all, but there's a built-in assumption that I don't buy: that penguins (and perhaps by extension other animals) are somehow morally superior to humans. While certainly any penguin being aware of the fact that they are contending against humankind for the fish supply would not like the idea of giving up all the fish to the humans, does anyone really think that out of the options of sharing the fish with humans or eating all the fish themselves, any penguin would choose the former? We're not morally inferior, we're technologically superior. Whether or not the power of our technology requires a moral temper to it is a matter of opinion. If you don't think so, then explain why humans hunt whales? Obviously someone feels that we owe no moral debt to our harpoonally-challenged sea dwelling cousins.

This is the hard part of relative morality, but to be honest, absolute morality has problems here too, in that it's fair to assume there will always be moral dilemmas that are not clearly covered by a given moral code. There are few religions or philosophical world-views that will tell you what to do about the frogs. Even Buddhists--who no doubt would advocate avoiding any actions that would harm frogs, penguins, whales, or elephants--do not to my knowledge address the issue of what to do for a frog that dies of natural causes. Really, not even the newspaper has a definitive answer. If only we could ask the frogs, what do you suppose they would say?