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Useless Creatures (and Why They Matter)

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 13, 2014

(Illustration: Chloé Poizat)

(Illustration: Chloé Poizat)

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.

13 Responses to “Useless Creatures (and Why They Matter)”

  1. Reblogged this on GarryRogers Nature Conservation and commented:
    Here’s a quote from Aldo Leopold that relates to the article: “One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community [and ocean community] have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use. Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance” (Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac….

  2. This comment came in on the NYT site: “The problem with this essay is that it ends by falling into the same mental trap it deplores.” I guess I should’ve figured that someone would notice that.

    • Lori Dunn said

      I also noticed the irony in the ending. Otherwise you make good points. As a wildlife advocate, I have always felt a sense of unease in justifying a species existence by the ways in which humans can benefit from it. Why should it HAVE to benefit (financially, medically or otherwise) us? Having said that, I would actually argue that we CAN find usefulness in all species. All species are interconnected in what you could call the “worldwide web” of biodiversity. The ones that we depend on, rely on others, that rely on yet others and so on. Thus, saying that shrimp are useful because they feed humans, means one must also acknowledge that all of the micro and macro organisms that allow those shrimp to exist are also useful. As you say, however, it shouldn’t matter. It should be enough that we allow these incredible creatures to exist and be thankful that we are allowed to be among them.

  3. A brutally honest assessment of the natural world viewed as a purely human commodity.

  4. Roger said

    Trees are useful. They help us breathe. Go back to school dippy.

  5. This response came in by email from scientists at Singapore NTU. The senders suffered the opposite of the “golden fleece” effect: I ridiculed them, based on a press release, for making their research seem too useful. Here’s a link to the actual study: http://bit.ly/1te5CWG

    And here’s the quietly outraged email:

    Dear Mr. Conniff,

    Your off-handed remark, based on a single press release, about our research on squid sucker ring teeth in your New York Times opinion article entitled “Glorious Uselessness of Wildlife” has caught our attention.

    We are happy to share with you (see attached) our full paper on the topic which we believe you will thoroughly enjoy. The biological and evolutionary implications are far from superficial and extend well beyond the quote you have used. The understanding of such systems, from the genes to their mechanical design is indeed fascinating on many levels. We fully concur that spiders and cuttlefish are amazing creatures in their own right. Elucidating the fundamental principles behind their remarkable adaptations, all the way down to the molecular scale brings even a deeper appreciation for Nature’s designs. This really is the core of our work, something that was unfortunately neglected in your article.

    Should you have any scientific questions about our research, we would be glad to answer them.
    Yours sincerely,

    The wonderful folks of Singapore’s NTU.

    Ali Miserez
    Paul Guerette

  6. […] the use? With wildlife, there doesn't have to be. And that's just fine. Superb case made by Richard Conniff. Read of the […]

  7. […] del debate abierto, tanto en la biblio científica (ejemplos aquí y aquí) como fuera de ella (aquí y […]

  8. […] https://strangebehaviors.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/useless-creatures-and-why-they-matter/ […]

  9. This comment came in by email:

    Hi Richard,

    Your recent piece on “Useless Creatures” in The New York Times http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/13/useless-creatures/ very nicely synopsizes themes of major importance to those of us who care about nature and its inhabitants. Your observation is spot-on, that The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable (Daily and Ellison) now dominates and directs the research of some of our most talented scientists. As well, I believe that your sense that this approach is morally bankrupt, is correct – and for some of the reasons that you recite in “Useless Creatures”.

    My sole reservation concerns your conclusion: Should human fascination and attraction to an organism dictate its value? Is an organism good to the extent that people wax poetic about it? What, do you think, that might imply for the coffin cave mold beetle? Or most beetles, or wasps, or many other creatures that we find mildly, and somtimes, emphatically, repulsive?

    I think that there might be some compelling normative basis for thinking that all organisms are valuable as the organisms that they are. I’d encourage you to think more about what that basis might be.

    Meanwhile, should you be interested in an elaboration of your critical theme, Chapter 6 of What’s So Good About Biodiversity: A Call for Better Reasoning About Nature’s Value http://www.amazon.com/Whats-Good-About-Biodiversity-Reasoning/dp/9400770995/ might be helpful.

    Thank you for helping to bring attention to the deep flaws in the now-dominant way of thinking about conservation.

    Regards,
    Don Maier

  10. Cynthia Goldberg said

    Dear Mr. Conniff,

    Rarely do I read something that so captures my beliefs, feelings and emotions as your article on “Useful Creatures” in the NY Times on September 14 has done. When I got to the next to the last aragraph I burst into tears. My husband, sitting across from me, could not imagine what was wrong with me. Once I could speak I tried to explain that never do I have the words for my friends who tell me stories of killing porcupines or armadillos (Oklahoma roots) or snakes (here in Woodstock ) because they essentially …get in their way.

    As we all have matured, ourselves, our country our world….I can only hope people feel how small and connected we actually are to everything and everybody.

    Thank you for your series.

    I will continue to quote you if you don’t mind….hopefully, without the tears.

    Most sincerely,

    Cynthia Goldberg

  11. Karl Jobst said

    Karl Jobst

    Useless Creatures (and Why They Matter) « strange behaviors

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