Conservation Science Must Value Individuals and Anthropomorphism

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I have learned that anthropomorphism is a deeply suspect word, used to defend cruelty to creatures unable to speak and defend themselves against human exploitation. –Sir Brian May, founding member of Queen and Save Me Trust1

I am deeply interested in the theoretical foundations and the on-the-ground ways in which conservation science values the lives of nonhuman animals (animals) because they speak directly about the nature of a wide variety of human-animal relationships. There are many different views on how conservation projects are designed and conducted, ranging from those in which animals are harmed and killed to those in which nonlethal methods are used.

In the past decade or so, researchers interested in an ever-growing global and transdisciplinary field called compassionate conservation have ruffled the feathers of more traditional conservation scientists because of their focus on the importance of the life of every single individual animal—their intrinsic or inherent value and what they’re thinking and feeling—and because they are comfortable with the careful use of anthropomorphism, a practice that can actually help animals rather than harm them.2,3 Some critics also worry that being “too emotional” about the lives of other animals can get in the way of making progress in conservation science, but this concern is unfounded.

 patrice schoefolt/Pexels

Source: patrice schoefolt/Pexels

Because of my interests in these and other areas of conservation science, I was thrilled to learn of a very important open-access essay by Kristy Ferraro, Anthony Ferraro, Andis Arietta, and Nathalie Sommer titled “Revisiting two dogmas of conservation science“—specifically, that individuals don’t matter and that anthropomorphism should be avoided at all costs—that should be required reading for anyone interested in the ways in which animals are treated and mistreated, often in efforts to help them along. Here’s what they had to say about their landmark work.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you all write “Revisiting two dogmas of conservation science”?

Kristy Ferraro, Nathalie Sommer, Anthony Ferraro, and Andis Arietta: The idea came to me [Kristy] while listening to an episode of the Radiolab podcast called Animal Minds. The episode tells a beautiful story of human-nonhuman interaction, in which several humans save a whale tangled in nets. Once free, the whale swims up to each of the humans, makes eye contact, and allows them to touch her. The fishers go on to explain how this was a way for the whale to express gratitude for saving her life.

Yet, in the next clip, we hear a scientist dismissing the interaction, stating we cannot know what goes on in the minds of nonhuman animals. I thought, “Hold on, both philosophy and science are aligned on the ability for us to know other animals experience emotions, but the dogmas within the sciences are holding us back. We’ve got to fix this.”

MB: What are some major topics you consider?

KF et al.: Our paper aims to reconsider and upend two dogmatic norms within conservation science and practice. The first is that conservation science has historically operated under the assumption that individual animals do not matter. Rather, it is the preservation of populations and species that are the primary concern of conservationists.4 Yet recent research within conservation science shows that individuals, and variation among them, can have huge impacts with conservation implications. For example, in some species, bolder individuals are more likely to succeed in urban environments and in some they don’t. We also argue that by recognizing the intrinsic and extrinsic value of individuals, we can do better science.

Next, we take on the long-debated role of anthropomorphism in conservation science. Most scientists are taught that anthropomorphism is dangerous. Yet we argue that it is actually detrimental to avoid being critically anthropomorphic, which acknowledges the shared evolutionary lineage between humans and nonhumans. Critical anthropomorphism enables a more nuanced scientific approach—allowing conservationists to ask enlightened questions with creativity and compassion.3

MB: How does your work differ from others concerned with some of the same general topics?

KF et al.: I see our work as building off of the energized philosophers and conservationists who are trying to change the way conservation science is done. There has been some very inspiring work in the field of conservation ethics in the last five years (e.g., those writing on ecocentrism and compassionate conservation), yet many scientists still push back against some of the more philosophical arguments. Therefore, we thought, why don’t we explore how both science and philosophy are demonstrating that our norms are outdated?

MB: Why are people so resistant to these ideas?

KF et al.: Resistance has been multifaceted, often from a single person. First, although conservation science is a crisis discipline, there is no required ethical training. Therefore, the vast majority of practicing scientists do not have formal exposure to philosophy and ethics. When conservation ethicists use philosophical reasoning and arrive at conclusions that challenge deeply held beliefs, there can be a premature dismissal of those conclusions due to how they are argued for, as well as their conflict with unexamined values ingrained in the structure of conservation science.

Anthropomorphism Essential Reads

Relatedly, and perhaps most obviously, we are arriving at conclusions that go against the core conventions of the field and run counter to the field’s fundamental training, a highly trained and entrenched group of professionals.

Conservation scientists have been taught for years that (1) caring about individuals will get in the way of broader conservation goals and (2) anthropomorphizing is dangerous and unscientific. These norms live in textbooks, introductory lectures, and words of warning from advisors to advisees. They are so ingrained in our thinking that they even shape the questions we ask. When those convictions are challenged, we are bound to find resistance.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about how you view conservation science, they will come to see that you share many of the goals of traditional conservation science in terms of maintaining/increasing biodiversity but not at the expense of trading off the lives of members of one species for members of the same or other species?

KF et al.: It is the only way forward. As we learn more about the rich inner lives of animals, we will have to confront the fact that they have intrinsic value—and our science and actions must respect that.

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