On September 5th, 2013, Science Daily published an article titled “Novel Method to Identify Suitable New Homes for Animals Under Threat from Climate Change.” As the title indicates, the article outlines a recent effort to map global environments, updating these maps regularly according to climate changes. These maps would assist environmentalists in relocating endangered animals to habitats suitable to their thriving. Says Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, ZSL's climate change coordinator and senior author on the paper, "Climate change poses a worrying threat to many animals, and relocating vulnerable species to new and more suitable habitats may be the only way to protect them. However, this is an extreme conservation action, which needs to be thoroughly justified, and requires clear guidance on where threatened populations should be moved. Our research shows how these key requirements can be met."
Some efforts to preserve threatened species just make sense. Honeybee populations have been on the decline in recent years. This is a problem since bees in general and honeybees in particular are the primary drivers of cross-pollination, especially in food-producing plants such as fruit trees. A drastic reduction in honeybee population would result in a global loss in vegetation. Produce and even oxygen levels would be negatively impacted.
This being so, it is in the self-interest of humankind to make every effort to preserve honeybees.
However, not every animal is this important to the ecosystem on which humans rely. The majority of animals on the endangered species list, if they were lost, would not significantly affect the human population. By and large, they would not be missed.
It is widely believed in scientific circles that around 65 million years ago, a meteor struck the earth, throwing enormous amounts of debris into the atmosphere. The darkening of the skies led to global cooling, which in turn led to a shift in the dominant life forms on the planet. Cold blooded animals were largely unable to survive under these conditions, allowing warm-blooded mammals the opportunity to survive and to thrive. Many believe that it was this event which gave humans the opportunity to become the dominant life forms on the planet.
When it comes to the ecosystem, adaptability is the name of the game. Species unable to adjust to changes in climate or alterations in their habitat get crushed under the uncaring wheels of planetary progression.
So why work so hard to preserve them?
“Preservation of plants and animals is important, not only because many of these species are beautiful, or can provide economic benefits for us in the future, but because they already provide us many valuable services. These organisms clean air, regulate our weather and water conditions, provide control for crop pests and diseases, and offer a vast genetic "library" from which we can withdraw many useful items.”
Of course, Bailey’s argument here is that “preservation of plants and animals is important.” There is no denying this point. However, those species which are slowly dying out, such as the manatee or the Bengal tiger, are fairly well studied and the impact of their loss would be minimal. The only arguments Bailey offers that might address these peripheral animals are their “beauty,” the genetic information that would be lost, and the possibility that they contain some yet-undiscovered benefit to humankind.
The possibility of deriving some scientific or medicinal benefit from animals such as a particular species of tiger or the arctic wolf seems like wishful thinking, especially since there is very little genetic information in them that cannot be gained from other species of cat and dog. This leaves the argument from their beauty and their uniqueness.
The drive to preserve that which is beautiful and unique is a well-documented motivator for human behavior. From art to archaeology, from comic books to vintage cars, humans are aggressively protective of that which is rare and lovely. If the Louvre in France were to be torched tomorrow, the international cry of rage and sorrow would be epic. Of course all of the things exampled above are of human design, and their value could be defended as a matter of the celebration of human creativity and achievement.
Why, then, are rare and beautiful things in nature so highly prized and zealously defended? There is no actual benefit to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Ayers Rock in Australia, or the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. They are neither examples of human achievement, nor contributing some resource which allows humans to thrive. However, if a person were to pollute, erode, or destroy these natural wonders, they would be punished by swift justice.
To preserve something in nature merely because it is beautiful speaks to a mindset that there are values above simple survival or thriving; that beauty is to be valued for the sake of beauty.
To preserve an animal merely because it is a living creature assumes that life itself has some intrinsic worth.
On Naturalism or Materialism such longings might be explainable biologically or psychologically, but they cannot be justified. If a person who clubs a baby seal to death is to be brought to justice, this assumes they have done something wrong. But if right and wrong are purely utilitarian things linked to human survival, what justifies the judgment? In fact, why have humans set themselves up as the ones responsible for this planet in the first place?
The intrinsic worth of natural beauty and the preservation of life forms makes a great deal of sense if those things have a creator; and further, if humans share the same creator. Nature becomes (as it has long been thought to be) a testimony to God’s character and the triumph of divine creation. By the Biblical account, humans are given responsibility over the care and preservation of the earth.
While humans are progressively beginning to deny or marginalize God, they continue to act as if there is one. They continue to value natural wonders and life forms that do not directly relate to their self-interests. As the Bible puts it:
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”