Instinct or Intelligence: Will Humans Preserve or Continue to Destroy Our Ecosystems?

Last year, it was estimated that there were a total of 8.7 million species on earth. Currently, about 1.2 million species have been named by science, with many new additions being discovered, especially following explorations into the bowels of cave networks or via submersibles sent to the inky depths of the ocean abyss. This record of biodiversity is intrinsically important, particularly as we are now aware of the value of healthy ecosystems and the services they provide. Even so, it is normal for human beings to focus on their needs and wants – like all other species – rather than conserve ecosystems, despite our knowledge of environmental deterioration and our understanding of the natural world and our place in it.

Certain regions of the globe experience conditions that allow biologically rich and diverse ecosystems to thrive. The landmasses that girdle the equatorial belt cover one such zone, which can be entangled with rainforest or flanked with coral reefs. These habitats contain the bulk of the world’s species. Recently, organisms new to science have been named from reef systems in the South Pacific, and an array of new plants and animals have been recorded in Papua New Guinea and the Amazon, including at least 46 new species in Surinam in January this year.

New species extend the catalogue of life and demonstrate the biological richness of a region, which can encourage governments to protect areas for scientific purposes. Moreover, it is known that the services provided by a healthy, diverse ecosystem are invaluable. Ecosystems supply food, medicines, clean water, and help control the spread of diseases, allow for the decomposition of organic matter, regulate climate, and permit nutrient cycling and crop pollination. These processes are vital for humans and are globally estimated to be worth trillions of dollars each year.

Some species are clearly important to humankind, such as bees that pollinate crops, trees felled for timber, or medicinal plants necessary for the pharmaceutical industry. Many of the most vital organisms, though, including fungi and bacteria that decompose dead matter and organic waste, or phytoplankton that remove CO2 from the atmosphere, are small and often neglected by conservation. Additionally, the interlace of complex relationships that form between organisms in a food web means that protecting just a target species is futile, for every organism is dependent on many others. Thus, maintaining healthy ecosystems is vital for ensuring their efficient services.

The IUCN Red List was founded in the mid-1960s with the aim of recording all species that are endangered. Today, some 13% of known birds are on this list and over 40% of all named amphibians are at various degrees of risk. Reasons why many species now face extinction include habitat destruction, pollution, diseases and climate change. These threats are certain to continue in the future.

In 2011, a subspecies of West African black rhino was declared extinct in the wild. Other birds and mammals are also close to gaining this classification. Conservationists have made efforts to preserve these animals and bring global attention to their vulnerability. Yet endangered reptiles, amphibians or fish often escape public interest, while invertebrates, fungi, plants and microbes are often ignored completely. These are pivotal ecological components and principal drivers for many ecosystem services.

Humans, keen to save charismatic pandas, majestic whales, and mighty tigers, often have little consideration for salamanders, millipedes, mushrooms or ferns. Stripped forests or a dredged coral reef gather attention, and it is known that a panda cannot survive without a swathe of mountain bamboo forest. However, we seem to disregard the less conspicuous powerhouses of a habitat, or areas that are not easily accessible or visually attractive – deep sea, ice caps, swamps, or marshes.

People tend to support themselves and the needs of their offspring by using resources necessary for survival. This requires money to buy food, have access to drinking water, purchase clothes, live in comfortable homes, etc. Yet conserving an ecosystem is not typically viewed as a profit maker. What benefit is there in preserving biodiversity that does not directly interest or assist us financially, or which may even disgust and harm us? Never has any other species considered the welfare of another organism unless there was a direct advantage for doing so, such as by gaining food or shelter.

Natural selection chose our species to have powerful brains capable of inquiry and comprehending the impacts that our actions have on our world. We are aware of the importance of a rich and diverse ecology, joyous to discover new species, and disappointed by extinctions. It would appear wise, therefore, to use our greatest asset, intelligence, to help solve the environmental problems that we have caused and to preserve our planet. But is it not human nature to instinctively extract and use resources, and rely on natural selection and innovation to choose whether or not we can adapt to an uncertain future? Is our selfish and arrogant manipulation and destruction of the natural world normal behavior for an intelligent species?

Only time will tell.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons