A resurrection with messy results

An Observer article published in The Japan Times on July 20 (titled “The quest is to clone a mammoth: The question is, should scientists do it?“) raises a passel of strong objections to the exciting idea of cloning a mammoth. Some scientists question the ethics of devoting so much time and money to an extinct species while so many living species currently hover on the brink of extinction themselves. Good point.

Under the “Three other potential candidates for cloning” sub-headline of the article, the case of the extinct passenger pigeon is mentioned. Conservationists love to raise the issue of the passenger pigeon, a gleaming example of a species that human beings deliberately extinguished in modern times. Usually it comes across as if our ancestors were a bunch of vicious and stupid slack-jawed yokels who “blasted” the birds “out of the skies.”

Yes, they did, but they had a good reason for it that conservationists never mention. Passenger pigeons reproduced in such out-of-control numbers that “vast flocks … once darkened the skies” literally. Those vast flocks were not a good thing. They damaged property and crops and left a layer of feces everywhere like snow that wouldn’t melt. They were not just a pest but a filthy public hygiene menace.

I don’t think I want the passenger pigeon back. Of course, its existence in the first place was not up to us, and as living creatures, they had their own worth. But I do not equate the moral value of an animal with the moral value of a human being. Resurrecting the passenger pigeon could be an environmental disaster.

grant piper

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

  • Spudator

    But I do not equate the moral value of an animal with the moral value of a human being. Resurrecting the passenger pigeon could be an environmental disaster.

    As always, a thought-provoking letter, Grant. But one could argue that human beings are the greatest environmental disaster of all—no “could be” about it. At least passenger pigeons weren’t responsible for climate change and didn’t have the ability to build self-destructing nuclear power stations.

    So, on that basis, which has greater moral value—people or pigeons? What in fact is moral value? Is it some intrinsic quality of varying degree that animals and human beings possess regardless of what they do? Or is it just a figment of the human imagination, just an expression of our conceit?

    • Me Piper

      Human beings do not have the ability to ‘damage’ the environment and the planet. In fact, it seems like ridiculous hubris by environmentalists to say so, and reveals the chauvinism of their imaginations to think that the various environments of the planet ought to be conducive to human life in the first place. Over time environments inevitably change, and the world will outlive the human species by billions of years.
      Many environmentalists are simply confused on this point because they confuse the disadvantageous affects of our activity on the environment as ‘damaging’ it when in reality human activity is damaging ourselves and our ability to survive, not the environment itself. The two are not the same. Human activity is certainly negatively affecting our ability to survive and prosper in the world, but the world itself is morally neutral to that.
      Morality and ethics are related but are not at all the same thing. It can be argued that animals exist in a better, purer moral state than human beings because animals, unlike humans, never fell from a condition of grace. It means they exist in a condition of moral innocence. However, moral innocence and morality are not the same. Animals, like human children or other human beings of diminished responsibility, lack the capacity to live morally because they lack the capacity to bear responsibility for choices made. In fact, it might be argued by some and rebutted by many that they lack decision making thought processes, or at least responsible decision making thought processes. People usually confuse instinct with thought.
      The question that asks ‘what is moral value anyway?’ is the same relativistic argument that says ‘it’s true for you but not for me’ and that tries to relegate morality to the lesser level of mere ethics. Saying ‘it’s true for you but not for me’ sounds fine and tolerant. But it only works because it is twisting the word ‘true’ to mean not ‘a true revelation of the way things are in the real world’ but ‘something that is genuinely happening inside you.’ In fact, saying ‘it’s true for you’ in this sense is more or less equivalent to saying ‘it’s not true for you’ because the the ‘it’ in question is conveying very powerfully a message which the challenger is reducing to something else.

      • 151E

        You really revel in arguing petty semantics, don’t you? But then you blithely go ahead and use language “resurrecting the passenger pigeon could be an environmental disaster” in precisely the same way that you take others to task for!

        ‘Damage’ is – as you are well aware – a value laden word usually used (in an ecological context) to denote negative influence on environmental systems important for human well-being (and often other favoured species as well). Professional environmentalists like Carson, Cousteau, Attenborough, and Suzuki are not “confused” on this point, but use words like ‘damage’ as an expedient short hand. When human industrial activity negatively impacts the biosphere for humans and/or other species – think ozone depletion, acid rain, oil spills, ocean acidification, etc. – ‘damage’ better conveys the message than value neutral words like ‘alter’.

      • beeblebrox

        No, it. doesn’t.