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Preserving Animal Culture
Emily Gertz, 21 Oct 04

beatiger.jpgAs Alex wrote in August, a couple British conservation groups announced plans for a Frozen Ark, containing the DNA of animal species that are on the verge of extinction.

Admirably, these groups stress that this is just to save the genomes for future study--not to regenerate some long-lost fauna in a more wildlife-friendly future. But it's tempting. There is something almost calming in thinking that with a little more application of our big evolved brains, a little more Enlightenment elbow grease, we can sidestep both culpability and the stress of the fundamental social and economic changes (however bright-greener things will be on the other side) that will go along with preserving endangered species.

But what makes an animal is not all stored in the double helix. This was brought home to me in a new way as I listened to Susan McCarthy speak at the American Museum of Natural History this past Tuesday evening. She's the author of Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild. As she explained what a tiger cub learns from how Momma Tiger deals with hunting, reacts to what she hears, sees and smells, how she vocalizes, it came clear that reconstituting a tiger from saved genetic material would not restore the tiger's culture.

Animals learn, and animals are remarkably adaptable. McCarthy told a story about night herons in Oakland, California that perch on awnings above a fish market, waiting for the day's discards. Awnings and dumpsters were not part of the heron's evolutionary environment--there is no "dumpster-recognition module" in the heron brain. They learned--perhaps by experience, which includes watching what other herons do--that awning-over-fish-market is a good place to score a tasty meal.

Can we humans teach animals to "make a living," how to live and hunt and be successfully? Not reliably. Susan McCarthy told Salon,

[There is] a very interesting way in which innate stuff and learned stuff interact. The little cats we live with and the big cats that live in the wild, like the tigers, have hard-wired behaviors involving being interested in little sneaking, scuttling things. They crouch, stalk, sneak up and pounce. But it's really quite another matter to put that together into a whole suite of behaviors where you've identified creatures that are good to eat and not fatal to attack, and then put all those behaviors together, and actually kill the animal, and kill prey often enough to make a living.

There's a story of the orphaned lion who was raised by rangers in a South African game preserve, and who took as his role model their Australian cattle dog. And was very, very interested in wild antelope and learned to herd them.

His interest in wild antelope was hard-wired. He had lots of innate behaviors, like sneaking, crouching and pouncing. But he had no idea at whom to direct that, so he pounced on his friends when he was playing with them -- the dog and the people. He was very interested in impalas, but the dog, his role model, herded them, so he herded them, too. Not a good way for a lion to make a living.

Decades of limited progress on saving wild animals and habitat suggest that the notion of intrinsic value is a nonstarter for most people, and that we're better off--from a conservation perspective--in affirming people's instinctual understanding that there is some sort of utility to humanity in preserving these species. I came away from Susan McCarthy's talk encouraged that in comparing our mutual habits of learning, there may be more opportunities to bridge the gap between human and animal needs.

I can easily imagine some sectors latching on to Frozen Zooz as a way to weasel out of the hard work of stopping the sixth great extinction--preserving habitat, transforming agricultural practices, creating economic justice, curbing global warming, and more.

McCarthy's exploration of animal culture shows that there's more to it than a sequenced genome.

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When we lose alot of species in the comming years we will sooner or later start replacing them.. both with copies and yes I know some will freak with all new creations from the lab.

Now as far as animal culture goes yes its a BIT of a handicap but its not a game ender. Raise a puppy without in mum and it wont act exactly like a dog normaly would raise a kitten with dogs it may even act a bit dogish. But animals learn and while they wont be exactly acting like we expect they will figure out what to do given time. They usualy do.

Posted by: wintermane on 21 Oct 04

I find all of that extremely disturbing and, if it comes to pass, worthy of mourning.

It's the same Cartesian hubris I refer to in the post to think that we can replace millions of years of accumulated, dense biological and cultural interactions and dependencies with animals grown in labs.

Who wants to live on a planet where every living thing is some shallow reflection of what we as a human find familiar, valuable or comforting?

Yes, I'm all about the intrinsic worth. I just recognize that it's not good strategy in the wider world.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 21 Oct 04

Its not about thinking we can replace millions of years of stuff its about people with money wanting interesting new pets. Like a passenger pigion or a dodo bird or whatever.

Posted by: wintermane on 21 Oct 04

Maybe the one basic point that needs to be gotten across to the general public is that each distinct population group of animals contains some environmental information that is not wholly captured by DNA.

The "as yet unknown/untapped economic benefit of virgin rain forest" argument is making some headway, and perhaps this is similar enough to do the same.

Posted by: pierre on 21 Oct 04

I agree. You can find a lot of examples of those approaches gaining traction, although they bring with them their own pesky details of economic justice to attend to--like sorting out patent rights. Don't really want the rainforests cut down, don't want them "owned" by Big Pharma, either.

Increased popular understanding of how biomes, ecosystems, watersheds, insert your ecological unit here, interact to keep air and water clean, impact weather...less immediately tangible than finding a miracle drug in a plant or animal, but ultimately key to building support to keep habitat intact.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 22 Oct 04



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