Humans have always considered plant and animal species in terms of what they contribute to our lives. But author Edward McCord believes that Yellowstone’s pronghorn and, indeed, all species, have value in and of themselves.
By Edward L. McCord
I’m one of the few people fortunate enough to spend every summer in Yellowstone National Park. Each day I get to train my binoculars on extraordinary wildlife like the pronghorn as part of a field course in geology, ecology, politics, and philosophy created by the University of Pittsburgh Honors College. For me and all visitors, our national parks and other public lands offer escapes from civilization into a more real perspective of time—places to reflect on the diversity of life and its myriad origins within an ancient ecosystem whose parts are substantially as they have been for thousands of years. They also provide chances to gain real-life insights into the challenges of managing these lands for their critical public missions.
What’s so wonderful about the role national parks play in preserving the diversity of life is that in them all native species are protected and all are recognized as objects for enjoyment. The Organic Act of 1916 requires the National Park Service “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same….” In the case of field courses like our Yellowstone class, nothing counts as enjoyment of wildlife more than learning about it, and unlike the four walls of a classroom or the confines of our homes, the way we learn in the national parks is by asking questions in the laboratory that surrounds us. Each of these innumerable inquiries leads to wonders at our door.
Why do we see hundreds of saplings growing beneath the burned forests of lodgepole pines but not on the floors of other burned forests? Because lodgepole pines have adapted to produce “serotinous” cones that are sealed shut by resin, which melts to release the plant’s seeds only in the extreme temperatures brought about by forest fires.
Why do we see brilliant orange striations in the water along edges of many thermal springs? Because certain microorganisms have adapted to live in these high-temperature acidic environments, and these colorful rings reflect their proximity and tolerance to the extreme conditions—the closer they are, the more they can withstand.
Why do Yellowstone’s thousands of geysers and hot springs exist all together in this locale? Because they are generated by forces in the crater of one of the largest active volcanoes in the world, located at the intersection of a molten plume deep beneath the Earth’s crust and the southwesterly movement of the North American Continental Plate.
Why has the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone led beavers to return to the park? Because beavers and elk compete for aspen and willows, and now that elk must constantly move to avoid those wolves, they cannot linger and browse on these tree species. That means beavers have greater access to aspen and willow branches for dams and bark for food, so their populations are making a comeback.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is where I have spent most of my time contemplating how our civilization fails in its regard for species, and it’s where I found the inspiration to write a book on the subject, The Value of Species. I was drawn to the topic for a simple reason. Species are vanishing from the Earth so rapidly that we cannot miss any opportunity to address the crisis. According to scientists’ best estimates, the pace of extinctions today rivals that of the fastest mass extinctions in Earth’s history.
Why might we value species, I wondered, and why should we? Species provide for our physical well-being, for products in the marketplace, and so on, but these practical considerations are more about us than about a value we find in learning about species in and of themselves. Most species do not have any practical value for humans. Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) offer a wonderful illustration, for there are some creatures like this whose trajectories through time are so dramatic and emblematic of the nature of life that they awaken in us a reason to appreciate every creature on Earth.
Consider some of the values that are commonly attributed to pronghorns. Most people would say that these are elegant animals to view, paint, and photograph; that they are entertaining to hunt; and that for many palates, they are delicious to eat. Indeed, all of the economic returns that flow from admiring, hunting, and eating pronghorns encourage people to protect their populations throughout their range, and that’s surely a good thing. How nice it would be if economic returns could save all the species on Earth in danger of extinction. But most species provide no economic returns. We might well wonder if there could be a value for us in every living thing, “simply for itself,” separate from our practical needs.
What do we learn of the pronghorn itself? First off, the pronghorn is fast, very fast, perhaps the fastest long-distance runner in the world. Pronghorns can sprint at 60 miles per hour. Only African cheetahs sprint faster, but even a cheetah could not keep up with a pronghorn over a distance, and pronghorns easily outrun all their peers in North America mile upon mile. A singular design serves this amazing speed. Pronghorns have a huge heart, trachea, and lungs; a large liver that allows them to store energy and access it quickly; special cartilage padding on their hooves; and much more—all of this quite interesting, yes? And, at last, we are talking about the pronghorn rather than ourselves!
Scientists tell us something about pronghorns that is even more astounding: their exceptional design now serves no compelling purpose, because no predator is around to give them a decent chase. Even the gray wolf that was introduced into Yellowstone rarely bothers to chase them. The pronghorn simply doesn’t need to be so fast.
Fired with curiosity, we press on to learn more. Why is the pronghorn so fast? Here we come to an evolutionary story about circumstances that the pronghorn, rather than being set apart, shares with all living things on Earth.
Our story rests on a simple and stirring metaphor. The “life” that all living things possess may be compared to a flame that passes from an individual to its progeny through reproduction. Any “living thing” is an instance in which a single flame of life remained aglow all through its ancestry. The pronghorns that stand before us were preceded by their parents, those parents by their parents, and so on. There could not be a break in the line. Every forebear throughout the entire line survived to reproduce.
We have learned from the fossil record that the original ancestors of all life on Earth arose as much as 3.8 billion years ago. Consequently, every plant and animal alive today is the forward point in a seamless continuum of life extending back in time through most of Earth’s history. It’s hard to fathom an idea of such magnitude. But it’s true.
The fossil record also reveals that pronghorns shared broad open landscapes during many millions of years on this continent with several species of high-speed cats that disappeared from America in the Pleistocene extinction about 11,000 years ago. That is why the pronghorn is so fast. Within its historic populations, only the individuals that ran the fastest could survive to breed. Thus, the astounding characteristics of every pronghorn today are to be credited to its ancient enemies, just as surely as those enemies carried within them a coordinated ability for speed that we must credit to their ancient prey.
When we ask what the “pronghorn” actually is, we see that it is an artifact of Earth’s history still in play. All life on Earth bears within its amazing form at every level of detail the working of long-ago ages. Thus, we come to appreciate the pronghorn and all living species for what they are in themselves, if we simply realize the astonishing dimensionality exclusive to each. It is this kind of insight that assets such as our national parks help us to gain if we only pause to observe and to learn.
A moment’s reflection reveals that the loss of any species on Earth is much more significant than we often realize. In each case, it is a loss of a wealth of design details through time and across space in adaptations to their environments—details that are unique and unrepeatable. Even if life is found on another planet somewhere, it will not take the forms that we find here. Countless events have determined the evolutionary paths of each form of life here on Earth. Since these detailed sequences are unique and unrepeatable, no species on Earth could have evolved anywhere else in the universe, and no species can ever occur again once it is gone.
As Thomas Lovejoy explains in the essay “Biological Diversity,” the extinction of a species is a loss to the very foundations of our learning:
One irreplaceable value of nature is as a living library on which to build the life sciences. Each species is a unique set of solutions to a specific set of biological problems, equivalent not to a book but to a series of volumes. If we lose a species, we lose that knowledge. Unlike information in books, once the species is gone, all the information goes with it.
Why do we persist in trimming down this loss to mere practical terms? So many scholars, scientists, and members of the public will tell you privately that that is not the reason they care. When a child, a student, or an adult surrenders, even fleetingly, to the fascination of a living thing, there is something more important in play for our humanity than practical consequences.
E.O. Wilson put his finger on it in his book, Naturalist:
Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusas, rays, and sea monsters, nearly 60 years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I think, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder.
And when scientist Cheryl Hayashi, in a vibrant TED Talk, finally distills for us her attraction to spider silk, there is something at work beyond practical applications:
In addition to . . . applications of spider silks, personally, I find studying spider silks just fascinating in and of itself. I love when I’m in the laboratory a new spider silk sequence comes in. That’s just the best. [Laughter.] It’s like the spiders are sharing an ancient secret with me, and that’s why I’m going to spend the rest of my life studying spider silk.
In the final analysis, appreciating other forms of life for what they are in themselves is about appreciating honest curiosity and a sense of wonder in the face of creation. What better testimonial could we find for protecting biodiversity in the national parks? We ourselves are the subject of a breathtaking new chapter in the cosmic biography: the emergence of a life form—Homo sapiens—able to reflect with insight and wonder upon life itself in all its infinite dimensions. A bat will never know the astonishing thing that it is. Nor will a crow or an ant or a sloth. Humans stand alone among all living things on Earth—and perhaps in the universe—in this gift of being able to appreciate every species for its uniqueness.
Here is a case for the inherent value of living things for us when we pause to see them for the extraordinary marvels of creation that they are. It is a value that is anchored in the magnificent power of human consciousness for reflective appreciation of existence. Such a value of each and every species is measureless for us, and surely if Charles Darwin is right, it is the overriding reason that we all should care so much about their loss. As he wrote of a verdant wood in The Voyage of the Beagle:
It is easy to specify the individual objects of admiration in these grand scenes; but it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.