Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Biodiversity and the Burden of Responsibility

Ernest Partridge

(Summer, 1998)

The Summer, 1998 issue of Defenders ("The Conservation Magazine of Defenders of Wildlife"), contains reflections by thirteen philosophers and theologians on the topic of "The Moral Case for Saving Species." The following is The Gadfly's contribution.

Modern science burst forth from the Renaissance, proclaiming boundless potential for humanity's "conquest of nature." This hubris was encouraged by philosophers such as Rene Descartes -- who proclaimed that mankind's essence, "thinking substance," was fundamentally separate from the "stuff" of nature -- and Francis Bacon, who counseled that "nature can not be commanded, unless obeyed" though he was clearly more interested in "command" than "obedience." Such opinion was the fruit of the earliest successful sciences: physics and chemistry.

At last, the life sciences have yielded a fuller wisdom: we are natural creatures. Our breath of life is a gift of the plant kingdom, just as the carbon dioxide we exhale is their nourishment. Our food is digested by countless symbiotic microorganisms, without which we would starve. The DNA code that spells out our inheritance is composed of the same four molecular letters that define all life on our common planet. The salinity of our life-blood is the same as that of the sea from which we came. And our brains, with which we have claimed "dominion" over the Earth, were selected and fully formed in the company of wild nature, before we settled our first agricultural villages a mere ten millennia ago. In E. O. Wilson's memorable words, "we stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world." Our species evolved, survived and prevailed in the company of our brother species, whose continued existence is now in our careless yet powerful hands. Nature begat us, nature sustains us -- nature is us! Thus anthropogenic extinction is far worse than "imprudent policy." It is, as Paul Shepard put it, "an amputation of man." And it is fratricide!

Are we our brothers' keepers? We are indeed. The advancement of science and its byproduct, technology, have bestowed upon us an inalienable burden: moral responsibility. Science affords us knowledge of the consequences of our interventions in nature, and technology gives us the capacity to choose among alternative futures: on the one hand, a biotically impoverished world, with homo sapiens precariously adrift on an alien planet from which it has cast out its source and sustenance; on the other hand, a world for ourselves and our posterity, luxuriant in the natural biotic abundance that gave our species life, and which nourishes our minds and souls with its boundless wonder and mystery.

Rational beings, thus possessed of knowledge and capacity, are necessarily morally responsible beings. This analysis of "responsibility" incorporates an ancient wisdom: from the ancient Hebrews, an understanding that the fruit of the tree of knowledge makes us liable to sin; and from the Greeks, a realization that when Prometheus stole fire, mankind could never again put aside the burden of his responsibilities.

The problem of biodiversity vs. extinction is momentous, and the outcome is in doubt. But who can doubt our responsibility -- to ourselves, to our posterity, and to our brother species?

Copyright, 1998, Defenders of Wildlife

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .