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Paper Title: The Inherent Value of a Species: An Argument for Diversity

Written by Jessica Albon
Submitted to Professor Campbell
HUM375 Environmental Ethics



Pull Quote: The morphological description indicates that you can determine what species is represented based on physical characteristics.

Six animals live at my house. Each of these animals has a different personality (and food preferences, Ebony, the lab, loves broccoli). According to current scientific thought, we have three species represented—three dogs, two cats and a cockatiel. The question is, though, how do I know we have three species represented? I could base my opinion on DNA evidence, except that I do not have access to the technology necessary. I could also base my opinion on the fact that they look and act differently from one another. The problem with the morphological definition is that it can be confusing as to which physical characteristics must be similar (What is a Species, website). One of our dogs is the size of a large cat (in some ways, she behaves like a cat as well). Based on the morphological species definition, it might be difficult to decide whether she was a dog or a cat. A species can also be defined based on shared ancestry, but this for definition one must know which animals share an ancestor and as this is something scientists continue to debate even within the human species (as scientists continue to debate which bones belong to the shared ancestors between apes and humans in the article “Primate Genus Sheds Light on Great Ape and Human Origins”), it seems to be too limited to provide a substantial definition. Instead of relying on any of these for our definition, it seems most reasonable to use the biological species concept (What is a Species, Website). 

The biological species concept seems to be the best choice for several reasons. The first reason is that the public has access to this information; I know that one of our cats cannot produce offspring with one of our dogs. The second reason this definition seems the most reasonable is that it is relatively straightforward. While DNA can be questioned—what percentage of overlap is necessary for two creatures to belong to the same species? —whether two creatures will breed, given geographic proximity, is a matter of simple observance (as Stephen Jay Gould explains in Van DeVeer, 495). Thus, the most practical determinant of whether or not two animals belong to the same species is if they can breed and produce offspring in nature.










Pull Quote: A keystone species is critical to the continued functioning of its ecosystem.

Heading: An Argument for the Protection of Endangered Species
Now that we have determined how we will define a species, we can begin to unravel the question of endangered species. To that end, I submit that the destruction of any ecosystem, no matter how slight, may cause environmental shifts around the world. These individual ecosystems are of primary importance to the health of the earth and thus deserve consideration. “If the world’s [individual] ecosystems are forced to evolve and adapt dramatically, there are an infinite number of ways in which they could evolve” (Effects of Biodiversity web enrichment). While this statement in the enrichment goes further to explain that this evolution could potentially produce a world unsuitable for human life, it makes plain that by changing or destroying ecosystems, one could change the world’s environment as well. As a result, I suggest that the world’s environment directly relates to individual ecosystems (Van DeVeer, 486-493).

Next, I forward that each of these ecosystems has a keystone species. This keystone species is “responsible for the smooth functioning of the whole ecosystem” (Effects of Biodiversity web enrichment). Destroying this keystone species has effects far more damaging than destroying another species in the same ecosystem. Because this keystone species is critical to the continued functioning of the ecosystem, its destruction may disrupt the ecosystem, and thereby disrupt the world environment. These keystone species are of utmost importance to their ecosystems and thus of the utmost importance to the world environment as well.

We cannot know which species in any given ecosystem is the keystone species. The Effects of Biodiversity web enrichment discusses that we have no way of knowing if half of the existing rainforests will be able to survive on their own or if they will perish because of the potential change in ecological balance. Though we have advanced in many areas, including the environmental, we still lack knowledge about the consequences of many of our actions. In fact, so many species are yet unknown to us that we may not even know of the keystone species’ existence in any given ecosystem.

We should strive to avoid the alteration of the world’s environment as we do not know what the results of such an alteration would be (Van DeVeer, 486-493). This statement means that we must also avoid destroying or changing any individual ecosystem because individual ecosystems often have an impact on the world’s environment. Because of the keystone species’ role in an ecosystem, we must ultimately protect each ecosystem’s keystone species. This poses a problem. How do we protect a keystone species when we are uncertain which species is the keystone?

In order to protect all potential keystone species, each species must be treated as though it is the keystone species for its ecosystem. This assumption will guard us against inadvertently destroying the keystone species of an ecosystem. While we cannot protect every species from every other species, we should act in ways that protect these species from humans. Thus, humans had a duty to remove the wild goats from San Clemente Island because they had established the goats there in the first place (Van DeVeer, 504 and Ethical Theory in Rolston web enrichment). These goats posed a threat to three endangered plant species on the island and removing the goats was the only way to protect the plant species.  Because humans had brought the goats and subsequently put three plant species at risk, it was a human duty to save the plants, not the goats. If each species is to be treated as a keystone species then it is the species that is important, not its individual members. Thus, while protecting the Malacothamnus clementinus, Castilleja grisea, and Delphinium kinkiense may have necessitated the removal or death of thousands of goats, humans had a duty to restore the ecosystem’s balance (Van DeVeer, 504).


Pull Quote: Environmental conflicts should give priority to the minority.

By considering each species a keystone species, each species is afforded the same weight as any other. Thus, humans are equal to chimpanzees, which are equal to horses. While in many political situations it is the majority who is given the most weight, in environmental considerations they should have the least while the smallest minorities are seen as the most important. Because of the small number of the three endangered plant species on San Clemente Island and the large number of goats worldwide, the San Clemente plants took precedence.

Therefore, all species, including endangered species, must be treated as keystone species and should be protected by humans so long as that protection does not jeopardize a greater number of species with extinction. If all species are equal, then the “superkilling,” as Holmes Rolston calls extinction, of any species is atrocious and unreasonable (Van DeVeer, 505). We must guard against such superkillings because eventually we will hit an ecosystem’s keystone species and from there, ecosystems may subsequently topple like dominoes.









Pull Quote: We must allocate resources according to the need of each species.




Heading: An Analysis of Possible Objections

Lilly-Marlene Russow believes that we should not address species as entire entities (Van DeVeer, 497-503). Instead, she writes, “an individual has value” (Van DeVeer, 502). She therefore might take exception with my premise that a species has value. She believes setting one’s sights on preserving a species because the species carries certain characteristics is misguided because in reality it is the individual with those characteristics. Thus, instead of believing we should save species, she believes individual animals must be saved. She argues for this perspective by writing that in viewing a species based on its individual members it makes more sense why we would feel the need to protect an endangered species. Because the basis is with the individual creature (or experience), she writes, encounters are “more delightful just for their rarity and unexpectedness” (Van DeVeer, 503).

The difficulty in viewing a species as important for its members instead of for its species is that one cannot always meet the needs of each of the members of a species. We cannot protect all humans, all gnats, and all mockingbirds all at the same time. Instead, we must decide which species requires that more of its members be afforded consideration. Whether we are dealing with limited resources or simply deciding which species needs the most attention, we must decide how to allocate these resources on a species by species basis and not on an individual creature basis. To decide whether this mockingbird or that needed more grain would be time poorly spent when other species required the allocation of resources as well. Thus, out of necessity, we must address the world around us on some unit larger than individuals and in this case, to address the world using the unit of species makes the most sense. For the same reason, it would be simpler still to address creatures on the level of their ecosystem. However, this does not seem to break it down far enough as there are ecosystems of varying size and with varying numbers of members. By looking at the needs of specific species in relation to other species, we seem to strike a balance between too broad a consideration and too narrow a focus.

In preserving all species, one may be committing resources to the preservation of animals that do not need to be preserved, animals that have outlived their usefulness within the ecosystem. Holmes Rolston argues that species are important for their role within the ecosystem and that animals such as the Siberian tigers in North American zoos might be better killed “in order to make space available for the cats needed to reconstruct and maintain a population that is genetically more likely to survive upon release” (Van DeVeer, 504). By preserving all species and working to avoid their destruction, we are working also to perpetuate the frailty of members of various species. If every time the bison winds up trapped in the river, we race to its rescue, weaker bison will not be eliminated from the genetic pool and will produce inferior offspring. By preserving all species regardless, we are doing ecosystems a disservice. We are weakening them to the point wherein they would not be able to survive without human intervention. Moreover, ecosystems have a delicate balance and human intervention could certainly serve to upset that balance (Van DeVeer, 504-511).



It is therefore wisest to treat each species as though it were the keystone species. We must protect all species in order to promote diversity.

There is the potential that human intervention will cause as much harm as good. Unfortunately, we really cannot know for sure what effect any of our efforts will have. We do, however know that humans are responsible for a great number of “superkillings,” as Rolston points out (Van DeVeer, 505-06). We are presently damaging the environment. Attempting to reverse this damage seems far more reasonable than doing nothing. Realistically, though, Gould mentions that very few species face extinction from non-human related causes and we must keep this in mind in considering whether a species may no longer have a place in its ecosystem (Van DeVeer, 493-497). In the future, we may need to consider whether we are rescuing a species that we should not rescue. At present, however, I do not believe we have this luxury. Deciding whether a certain species has value within its ecosystem would be much like trying to determine which species is the keystone species. And, unfortunately, such a quest can return misinformed results because as humans we cannot know everything, nor can we make accurate predictions. Therefore, it is simplest to treat each species as the keystone species and strive for the protection and rejuvenation of all species in order to promote diversity and stability throughout the world’s ecosystems.

Heading: Conclusion

Through this argument, I believe I have proven that all species, including endangered species, must be treated as the keystone species in their ecosystem and should be protected by humans so long as that protection does not jeopardize a greater number of species. If all species are equal, then the superkilling of any species is atrocious and unquestionably wrong. We must guard against these superkillings. If our goal is to prevent the world environment from changing dramatically, we must preserve individual ecosystems. Such individual ecosystems are reliant on their keystone species for smooth functioning. In order to insure the protection of the keystone species of each ecosystem, we must protect all species of each ecosystem. This seems to be the clearest way to prevent massive global ecological change.

See Works Consulted