Magazine article Endangered Species Update

Human Behavior and Conservation

Magazine article Endangered Species Update

Human Behavior and Conservation

Article excerpt


Many problems in managing and protecting endangered species arise not from our ignorance of the species' ecology, but from human conflicts of interest. As humans become ever more numerous, and more efficient in extracting resources, finding workable solutions becomes urgent. Here I suggest that strategies that work with our evolved tendencies have the potential to be more effective than strategies that ignore them.


Muchos de los problemas en el manejo y proteccion de especies en peligro de extincion no provienen de nuestra falta de conocimiento sobre la ecologia de la especie, sino de conflictos de interns entre los humanos. Con el crecimiento de la poblacion humana, y su cada vez mas eficiente extraccion de recursos, la necesidad de encontrar soluciones factibles es urgente. En este articulo, sugiero que las soluciones acordes con las tendencias evolutivas de los humanos tienen mayor potencial para ser efectivas que las estrategias que las ignoran.


Today, conservation biologists face problems of unprecedented pace and scale. It is increasingly clear that a species' behavior and life history, molded by environmental pressures, can make the difference between conservation success and failure, particularly for endangered species (Dietz, this issue).

Human behavioral ecology is also important to the conservation and management of other species, especially endangered species, and of ecosystems. We repeatedly encounter cases in which failure arises not from the managed organism's life history and behavior, but our own. Often, we know the species' biology well enough to manage it properly--but human considerations block solutions.

Basics of Human Behavior: How to Cooperate to Conserve

It isn't something most of us think about: how our personal goals and constraints in our professional and daily lives connect to our evolutionary history. But there are links, and perhaps understanding them will help us find effective solutions. Here is a brief outline of the major issues of human behavioral ecology: how natural selection, and our evolutionary past, influence our decision-making; and how, despite today's complexity, that influence affects our ability to work toward successful conservation.

At the heart of our evolutionary history; and that of every other species, is the "selfish gene" (Dawkins 1989; review in Low 2000: Ch 1-4). Individually we live and die, but our genes (or their "replicates") can be immortal, which leads to interesting complexities in behavior. Obviously, getting and using resources effectively is a winning strategy and overt competitive behavior can (and does) work to get genes copied in all species. But in social species, cooperative behavior is extremely effective in getting our genes passed on--typically those we help are our relatives, with whom we share genes (parental and nepotistic behavior), or friends who will help us in return (reciprocity). Reciprocity can be complex and indirect: we help each other, but not on a one-to-one basis. Finally, we humans are not only social, but extraordinarily smart and complex: we invent "third party" interventions and institutions. Many other species have territories, but so far as we know, no other species has the equivalent of law enforcement and a judicial system to protect property rights.

We are complex and change our environments rapidly and repeatedly. Today, societies are large, and it is not at all clear that there are definite correlates of lineage success. It is tempting to ignore our past and the resource behavior of people in traditional societies today (our best reflection of past human behavior). We should not for two reasons. First, traits, including human traits, that are profitable for long periods, tend to remain even when environments change so that they would now be deleterious. Second, we know that cultural strategies that significantly reduce the reproduction of their followers tend to decline. …

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