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In reading various papers and books that talk about biodiversity and the need to both measure and promote it (agreed!), you will encounter an idea of a thing called an “Indicator Species.” These would be species to examine, in part, to understand how healthy or threatened an ecosystem is. In various books on oceans I have read that mussels and oysters are good indicator species for marine health. I’m about to use the term “Indicator Species” improperly and I think there is a term for what I am about to talk about, I just don’t know what it is. In many ecosystems you can examine the health of the system by seeing what the top or largest predators are doing.

A basic question is, first, ARE THEY THERE? ¬†An example of what I am talking about is the recent discovery of humpback whales in New York City. Yes! They may be indicative of a healthier marine system first because they are there, but really because it signals that there are enough fish and other foods there to make to make it worth their time to follow them all the way to New York. I bet the traffic is still bad. This may lead one to believe that the waters around New York are healthier than they have been in a very long time – if fish populations are growing there must be enough good habitat and smaller food organisms for them too, and for those smaller organisms to succeed water quality must be amenable to them. And so the whale’s presence, and probably its abundance, is an indicator of ecological health.

And here is where the dinner invitation is rescinded: If you type “humans as an in” into the Google Search bar, the first thing that comes up is, “Humans as an Invasive Species.” You’ll notice NO entry for Humans as an Indicator Species. Indeed if you proceed to google that term you get no direct results on it of the millions that come up for ants, slugs and the like. If you google it in quotes, you get a grand total of FIVE hits. FIVE. But seriously, if there is ever a measure of “sustainability” at least as it pertains to people, is whether they in fact exist SOMEWHERE and exist in large numbers somewhere. And by that metric, since we’d managed to flourish in just about every corner of the globe and now have managed to live for months on end in space, on Antarctica and in deserts, it is hard to argue that things are not going well. Life expectancy is at an all time high. Infectious disease fatalities are falling. Cancer death rates are falling. Calories per person are more available than any point in known history. And so on. But heaven forbid we actually ever use a real, living, breathing human being as an indicator of success. Seems strange to me especially given the slogans we see regularly invoked in the name of people.

On a somewhat related note, I came across this cartoon today:

Funny. Ha ha. But it’s silly really. We are so amazing with our technology that we can farm fish. And we are so amazing that we can feed them corn instead of ocean foods. And we can grow this corn using less water and land today than ever in our history, and applying less herbicides and pesticides than before. And with that Genetic Modification we can keep doing this, including the types of fish we grow. But then our awesome powers of science and adaptation wouldn’t be able to make the fish taste like whatever we really wanted it to taste like? I know, I know – that would sort of be the next panel in their “joke.” But … it’s a panel that should be there, and illustrates the very WORST case scenario for us – and a pretty darn good scenario that is. After all, we can already do this and also this and I don’t see people lamenting our ability to adapt in that particular way. Curious.

6 Responses to “Removal From Polite Company: Indicator Species Edition”

  1. Gabriel Wittenberg says:

    Organizations like Green Peace are very much at odds with humanists. The most important end for many “progressives” is that humans should have equal opportunity to succeed, and yet if they had it their way, food would be so prohibitively expensive that many folks who they would like to give an equal opportunity to succeed to wouldn’t make it to the ripe old age of 1. More expensive energy and more expensive food is anti-humanist; it hurts the people who can afford to be hurt the least the most. I love the earth, but I also love humanity. And the fact of the matter is that we have 7 billion people that need to eat on this planet. If that means we have to eat food that was grown with GMO’s, which are not obviously “bad”, than that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. http://online.wsj.com/articles/monsanto-under-attack-for-gmos-has-a-new-defender-1409777311

  2. Scott says:

    I very much enjoyed this post, thank you for sharing.

    • Scott says:

      This post highlights the similarities between the principles of biology and the principles of economics, reminding us the patterns of nature seem to coincide with the patterns of spontaneous markets, a concept that is very underrepresented in the popular discussion of ‘economics.’

  3. chuck martel says:

    Humans as an indicator species? Interesting concept. When we encounter a ghost town like Geronimo, AZ or Craigville, MN or Oro Grande, CA we don’t come to the conclusion that these places were spots where humans couldn’t physically exist, we assume that they’re no longer populated for economic reasons, that human habitation couldn’t continue because for one reason or another the numbers didn’t add up. We don’t look at the rest of the environment in the same way. Or, if we do, it’s a problem created by us, a change that’s been made, by humans, to the disadvantage of the timber wolf or the blue crab or the great auk. Never mind that some of the struggling or extinct species took up an unsustainable role, occupied a niche that couldn’t last indefinitely, like the lumberjacks of Koochiching County, MN that no longer exist because their place has been taken by heavy equipment or a changing demand for forest products. Do we really feel that every species that has trod or slithered across the earth should still be doing so?

  4. Harry says:

    I read that article in the WSJ Gabriel linked to. It was balanced and informative, but at one point it referred to the use of pesticides as a concern of the anti-GM people and perhaps of the author.

    Pesticides and insecticides should not be relevant in the GM controversy. (Not that insecticides are not a concern, but that is a separate question.) Seed breeders, including Monsanto, have for years tried and succeeded in developing hybrids resistant to diseases and insects. I do not know anyone who sprays for bugs when growing corn. Some people spray for bugs when growing alfalfa, but there is a trade off between yield and the expense of spraying, and we never did it.

    When it comes to growing corn, soybeans, and other crops, the big problem is weeds, for which Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds provide a practical solution, since Roundup kills not just broadleaf weeds but also sedges, Kentucky Bluegrass, clover, the whole lot, so nothing else competes with the nutrients in the soil.

    Of course, when you spray for weeds you do not want to do it indiscriminately. Roundup would be no good if it made a future hayfield impossible, which means that farmers do not poison land they own. Furthermore, as any (evil) lawn farmer shopping at WalMart knows, Roundup is expensive. It is not in one’s economic interest to go poor buying herbicides, even if the enemy weeds lie between the pavers in the yuppie driveway.

    But as some have pointed out, the world would be much hungrier without herbicides, selective breeding, chemical fertilizer, and yes, Roundup-Ready seeds, not to mention big tractors that run on fossil fuels.

  5. […] Are humans an ‘indicator species?’ […]

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