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Playing God For The Sake Of Science

specimens on display at the American Museum of Natural History, with patrons in the foreground
A selection of specimens on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Dan McKay.

A scientist traipsing through a remote wilderness comes upon a long-rumored creature, previously considered either mythical or extinct. There is no way to trap and bring it back alive, so he kills it to serve as a specimen for further study.

Is this a heroic adventure or a horror story?

Before you answer, let’s fill in a few more details. The wilderness in question, while seemingly in good condition, is nonetheless threatened by human encroachment, commercial activity and quite possibly by climate change, either human-induced or otherwise. The creature’s capture provides the first and possibly only opportunity to preserve its DNA for possible restoration efforts in the future, if indeed extinction is a risk. But the wildlands might actually hold a viable population of this newly discovered member of Earth’s family; in that case, the specimen may help to inform future efforts to protect that population from later threats. The scientist collecting the specimen killed it as humanely as possible under the circumstances, in the hope that further study will help spur efforts to preserve the population.

Now, let’s consider once again: Is our wandering scientist a hero or a monster?

Maybe neither. Maybe he is just a scientist.

This is not a purely hypothetical scenario. Christopher Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History is the scientist who inadvertently set off a debate about the ethics of scientific collection. While working in “the remote highlands” of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, he ran across the moustached kingfisher, a bird that has long eluded naturalists but that locals reportedly call “unremarkably common.” While a few female specimens exist, no males had ever been captured or studied by scientists until Filardi’s find.

While the decision to “collect” a euthanized specimen in the field is a normal part of the scientific process, the incident served as a flashpoint for a debate about how science is done. Some argue that collection can hurt a struggling or rebounding population; others argue that collecting specimens for study is a necessary step in pursuing long-term conservation aims. A controversial article that ran in the journal Science last spring argued that scientists should mainly avoid collection, especially for small and isolated populations, and rely on photographs, recordings and DNA samples instead. More than 100 biologists countered with reasons why responsible collecting is still important and beneficial.

It is also important to note that scientists are already subject to laws and regulations designed to protect wildlife populations. Before collection can occur, scientists need to secure approval and permits. And many defenders of collection point out that compared to habitat destruction and other human activity, collection is responsible for only a tiny fraction of individual deaths caused by humans. Emily Graslie, who hosts YouTube videos for The Field Museum in Chicago, explained in a video last year that monitoring species over time can serve as an early alert when something goes wrong with a population and save many more individual plants and animals in the long run.

While this controversy did not originate with Filardi and the moustached kingfisher, the incident raised the temperature of the debate. Audubon added an editor’s note to its article on the find to explicitly observe that the bird was euthanized for collection. Filardi also wrote an opinion piece for the periodical to address reader concerns over his actions.

The question comes down to one of philosophy, or maybe religion. Does proper environmental stewardship require a big-picture approach, in which individual members of a species can justifiably be sacrificed for the welfare of the species as a whole? Or does each individual creature have what we might otherwise have termed “human rights,” including the right to live out its existence as nature and fate would have it do, without regard to broader conservational goals? The first approach is how a scientist would likely view things; the second question is more strongly dictated by philosophy or faith. It is a challenging position to argue, when the underlying rationales are so different.

Without regard to any particular belief, or lack of belief, in a supreme being, we humans are indisputably playing God when we take it upon ourselves to decide which creatures should live and which may be killed. Then again, no other life form known to us seems to be prepared to take any sort of responsibility for the condition of its species, any other species or the planet as a whole. Certainly you could argue, justifiably, that no species threatens the planet’s condition to any degree remotely like Homo sapiens. But if mankind were to suddenly depart this world for another, the remaining species would not survive indefinitely in a peaceful, “Kumbaya” existence in our absence. Species have been going extinct since life first arose on Earth, long before we came on the scene.

In this case, I come down on the side of the scientist. Conservation is necessarily about doing the greatest good for the greatest numbers, however we define it. Stewardship is not the same as stasis. And if a captured critter is truly the last of its line, extinction is only a matter of time anyway. The only hope of resurrection in this world lies with the one species that knows and cares enough to try for it.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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