Useless Creatures (and Why They Matter)
Posted by Richard Conniff on September 13, 2014
My latest for The New York Times:
This article contains no useful information. Zero. Nada. Nothing. If usefulness is your criterion for reading, thank you very much for your time and goodbye, we have nothing more to say. The truth is that I am bored to tears by usefulness. I am bored, more precisely, of pretending usefulness is the thing that really matters.
I mostly write about wildlife. So here is how it typically happens for me: A study comes out indicating that species x, y and z are in imminent danger of extinction, or that some major bioregion of the planet is being sucked down into the abyss. And it’s my job to convince people that they should care, even as they are racing to catch the 7:10 train, or wondering if they’ll be able to pay this month’s (or last month’s) rent.
My usual strategy is to trot out a list of ways even the most obscure species can prove unexpectedly, yes, useful. The first effective treatment that turned H.I.V. from a death sentence into a manageable condition? Inspired by the biochemistry of a nondescript Caribbean sponge. The ACE inhibitors that are currently among our most effective treatments for cardiovascular disease (and which have lately been proposed as a treatment for Ebola)? Developed by studying the venom of the fer-de-lance, a deadly snake found from Mexico to northern South America. The new medical bandage that’s gentle enough for the delicate skin of newborns and the elderly? Modeled on the silk of spider webs.
Every time I begin this line of argument, though, I get the queasy feeling that I am perpetuating a fallacy. It’s not that I’m telling lies; these examples are entirely real. But given, for instance, that three-quarters of our farm crops depend on insect pollinators, or that more than 2.6 billion people rely directly on seafood for protein, it seems a little obvious to be reminding people that wildlife can be useful, or, more to the point, that human survival depends on wildlife. Without saying so out loud, the argument also implies that animals matter only because they benefit humans, or because just possibly, at some unknowable point in the future, they might benefit humans.
You don’t have to look too far to see how silly this can get. In truth, I don’t have to look at all, because university press offices fill my inbox with examples every day: The Harvard scientists who hope their study of cuttlefish skin will “inspire improved protective camouflage for soldiers on the battlefield.” The Berkeley team that thinks studying the genetics of blubber-eating polar bears could help us learn to live with our bacon-wrapped, wide-load lifestyle. And the wonderful folks at Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore, who believe “Squid sucker ring teeth material could aid reconstructive surgery, serve as eco-packaging.” (And you thought they were good only for calamari.)
I don’t entirely blame the scientists. Their research often depends on taxpayer funding, and their dreams are haunted by the ghost of United States Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award. That award garnered headlines by ridiculing outlandish-seeming items in the federal budget, and animal behavior studies were a juicy target. So now people doing that kind of research all feel obliged to imply that they are two steps away from a cure for the common cold. No basic research here, Senator, sir, no idle curiosity. Useful “R” Us. (They also delight in pointing out that one of Mr. Proxmire’s targets — a $250,000 investigation into the sex life of the screwworm fly — has yielded $20 billion in benefits to American cattle farmers by enabling control of a major insect pest.)
Improbably, wildlife conservationists now also often hear the call of the useful. Along with a large contingent of eco-finance bureaucrats, they try to save threatened habitats by reminding nearby communities of all the benefits they derive from keeping these habitats intact. Forests, meadows and marshes prevent floods, supply clean water, provide habitat for species that pollinate crops, put oxygen into the atmosphere and take carbon out, and otherwise make themselves useful. In some cases, conservation groups or other interested parties actually put down cash for these ecosystem services — paying countries, for instance, to maintain forests as a form of carbon sequestration. The argument, in essence, is that we can persuade people to save nature by making it possible for them to sell it. They can take nature to the bank, or at least to the local grocery. They can monetize it. (The new revised version of Genesis now says, “God made the wild animals according to their kinds, and he said, ‘Let them be fungible.’ ”)
I understand the logic, or at least the desperation, that drives conservationists to this horrible idea. It may seem like the only way to keep what’s left of the natural world from being plowed under by unstoppable human expansion and by our insatiable appetite for what appears to be useful. But usefulness is precisely the argument other people put forward to justify destroying or displacing wildlife, and they generally bring a larger and more persuasive kind of green to the argument. Nothing you can say about 100 acres in the New Jersey Meadowlands will ever add up for a politician who thinks a new shopping mall will mean more jobs for local voters (and contributions to his campaign war chest). Nothing you can say about the value of rhinos for ecotourism in South Africa will ever matter to a wildlife trafficker who can sell their horns for $30,000 a pound in Vietnam.
Finally, there is the unavoidable problem that most wildlife species — honey badgers, blobfish, blue-footed boobies, red-tailed hawks, monarch butterflies, hellbenders — are always going to be “useless,” or occasionally annoying, from a human perspective. And even when they do turn out, by some quirk, to be useful, that’s typically incidental to what makes them interesting. Cuttlefish do not fascinate because their skin may suggest new forms of military camouflage, but because of the fantastic light shows that sometimes play across their flanks. Spider web silk doesn’t intrigue because somebody can turn it into bandages, but because of the astonishing things spiders can do with it — stringing a line across a stream and running trotlines down the surface to catch water striders, for instance, or (in the case of the species named mastophora dizzydeani) flinging a ball of silk on a thread like a spitball to snag moths out of the air.
Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless. They are useless in the sense that they do nothing more than raise our spirits, make us laugh or cry, frighten, disturb and delight us. They connect us not just to what’s weird, different, other, but to a world where we humans do not matter nearly as much as we like to think.
And that should be enough.