Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Evolution and the Goal of Environmentalism

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Evolution and the Goal of Environmentalism

Article excerpt

Two Policies Concerning Evolution: Process and Outcomes

Human beings are by far the most successful species ever to have populated Earth. In the course of at most a few hundred thousand years, human beings have managed to dominate the Earth so completely that most species persist or perish only at the pleasure of human beings. The species that are the most durable and successful in resisting the sweep of humanity have not been the largest or the fastest. Rather they are the smallest: microbes that somehow elude us and adapt through mutation to defeat our relentless assaults upon them; yet, to this point, even stubborn microbes, like smallpox, have eventually yielded to the human will, in some cases driven to the point of extinction.

Human beings, in virtually everything we do, affect the course of evolution itself, and it is obvious that environmentalism will be a coherent program only if it takes a plausible view of the proper role of human beings in determining evolutionary outcomes. Though human beings dominate the planet, other creatures also affect evolutionary development. In fact, whenever two species compete over the same territory for the same food sources, the one that reproduces the fastest will ultimately dominate--displacing and destroying or at least forcing its competitor through transformative mutations. The course of evolution is the result of the process of natural selection, as it is called. Indeed, species come and go as they appear as particularizations of the ever-changing biomass. Tracking the details of speciation would appear to provide a special opportunity for intellectual modesty. We have hardly catalogued existing species, much less the ones that have gone before, and theories about the transformative processes that have determined the course of evolution remain more or less unsettled.

The fairly simple nineteenth century model of evolutionary change has been complicated during the twentieth century by analyses of dynamic systems and feedback loops between changes in eco-systems and genetic transformations. Indeed, the very concept of a 'species' is now controversial. One definition recently proposed is that specie is 'a functional (reproductive) set of genetics at dynamic equilibrium within the adaptive (and holographic) context of its local ecosystem.' (Cawley, 2010, p. 12) More sophisticated theories of speciation reduce species change to genetic change. Even so, in the long run, survival and population growth are probably the best measures of adaptive success. Indeed, what else could 'success' mean? Serious, popular literature is replete with alarming reports of ecological threats to native habitats and hence to the survival of species located within them. For example, various species of birds (Rosenthal, 2011) and of frogs (Dixon, 2011) are now threatened by encroaching civilization. Although the dangers many be overstated, some fear that entire ecosystems are threatened, including the Belize Barrier Reef, the Congo Basin, the Everglades, and the Tahuamanu Rainforest. Whatever the urgency, it is clear that the process of speciation will be affected by the policies we adopt in managing the environment. Among the most important policies will be those that regulate human activities that affect climate, which in turn affect biodiversity over a wide range of geographic regions. Managing the environment involves humans in the course of evolution in ways in which other species are not involved; to wit, by taking decisions that affect evolutionary outcomes. (1)

Humans may choose to alter the course of evolution not only to assure our dominance over other species but also to shape the environment for our own purposes, and it is at this point that the values we choose to promote will be most apparent and carry the most important implications for the course of evolution itself. We domesticate animals, change the forests into pastures for the production of food and favor some species over others solely for our own pleasure: for example, by creating beautiful gardens of delicate flowers at the expense of hardier weeds. …

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