Biological Xenophobia

In Wednesday’s San Francisco Chronicle column, “Ask The Bugman,” a letter writer asked The Bug Man the following question:

Why shouldn’t we use pesticides to control invasive species such as the light brown apple moth? If we don’t do anything, it will ruin all of our crops.

In his response, Richard Fagerlund aka The Bugman questioned the very concept of “invasive species”:

How do we decide what is an invasive species? If animals and insects are competitive and adapted to the environment they are in, they will thrive. If they can’t make a living, they will move on. If you call a species invasive because it moves to new areas, then our species, humans, are probably the most invasive species on the planet. Certainly, we have done as much or more damage in some areas as all the other species combined.

“Invasive species” is a term used for economically important (or destructive in our minds) organisms. If an insect or other animal weren’t destructive, they wouldn’t be considered “invasive.” If a beautiful butterfly invades an area, it is a wonderful event. If a moth that feeds on a few crops comes along with it, it is a menace to society.

When we talk about native species, we are referring to species that have been around as long as we can remember. We don’t want to see them displaced by other species we may not know as well. When an “invasive” species becomes adapted, it becomes part of our ecosystem. When we start using pesticides to control the “invasive” species, we are going to affect everything living in that ecosystem, including our own species. We found that out when they started spraying those chemicals to control the light brown apple moth. Many people complained of adverse health effects.

I would imagine that after Wednesday’s article, Fagerlund is getting a whole lot of crazy from the hyperbolic, hysterical “invasion biology” crowd. Yet he is not alone in the views he shared regarding the troubling growth of this harmful ideology. As an environmentalist, I have anxiously watched the spread of this dangerous mindset over the last several years which condones the use of poisons, killing and the destruction of natural places in a vain attempt to stop the natural – and inevitable – processes of life on earth. It is true that the determination as to which species are “invasive” are based on subjective human aesthetics and narrow commercial interests, and that by the invasion biologists’ own logic, humans are “invasive” species #1. Fagerlund’s rational, common sense discussion of the issue is a welcome departure from the jingoistic fear mongering which increasingly characterizes the discussion of migration and natural selection, even among those who should know better, such as scientists and environmentalists.

In both Redemption and again in Irreconcilable Differences, I also challenged the concept:

The idea that some animals have more value than others comes from a troubling belief that lineage determines the value of an individual animal.   This belief is part of a growing and disturbing movement called “Invasion Biology.” The notion that “native” species have more value than “non-native” ones finds its roots historically in Nazi Germany, where the notion of a garden with native plants was founded on nationalistic and racist ideas “cloaked in scientific jargon.” This is not surprising. The types of arguments made for biological purity of people are exactly the same as those made for purity among animals and plants.

In the United States, Invasion Biologists believe that certain plants or animals should be valued more than others if they were at a particular location “first,” although the exact starting point varies, is difficult to ascertain, and, in many cases, is wholly arbitrary. Indeed, all plants and animals were introduced (by wind, humans, migration, or other animals) at some point in time. But regardless of which arbitrary measure is used, Invasion Biologists ultimately make the same, unethical assertions that “introduced” or “non-native” species do not have value and are not worthy of compassion. They conclude that these species should, therefore, be eradicated in order to return an area to some vague, idyllic past.

Trying to move the world to a mythical state that probably never existed lacks a moral or logical foundation. Nature cannot be frozen in time or returned to a pre-European past, nor is there a compelling reason why it should be. To claim that “native” species are somehow better than “introduced” species equally or better adapted to the environment is to deny the inevitable forces of migration and natural selection. No matter how many so-called “non-native” animals (and plants for that matter) are killed, the goal of total eradication can never be reached. As far as feral cats are concerned, they will always exist. To advocate for their eradication is to propose a massacre with no hope of success and no conceivable end. They exist and have a right to live, regardless of how and when they arrived or were “introduced.” Their rights as individuals supersede our own narrow, human-centric desires, which are often based on arbitrary biases, subjective aesthetics, or commercial interests.

The ultimate goal of the environmental movement is to create a peaceful and harmonious relationship between humans and the environment. To be authentic, this goal must include respect for other species. Tragically, given its alarming embrace of Invasion Biology, the environmental movement has violated this ethic by targeting species for eradication because their existence conflicts with the world as some people would like it to be.   And in championing such views, the movement paradoxically must support the use of traps, poisons, fire, and hunting, all of which cause great harm, suffering, and environmental degradation.

Equally inconsistent in the philosophy of Invasion Biology is its position—or, more accurately, lack of a coherent position—on humans. If one accepts the logic that only native plants and animals have value, human beings are the biggest non-native intruders in the United States. With over 300 million of us altering the landscape and causing virtually all of the environmental and species decimation through habitat destruction and pollution, shouldn’t Invasion Biologists demand that non-native people leave the continent? Of course, non-profit organizations that advocate nativist positions would never dare say so, or donations to their causes would dry up. Instead, they engage in a great hypocrisy of doing that which they claim to abhor and blame “non-native” species for doing: preying on those who cannot defend themselves.

In the end, it is not “predation” that Invasion Biologists object to. Animals prey on other animals all the time without their complaints. In fact, they themselves prey on some birds by eating them, and they prey on animals they label “non-native” by eradicating them. For Invasion Biologists, predation is unacceptable only when it involves an animal they do not like.

Like Fagerlund, I agree that it is wrong and obscene to label any species an “alien” on its own planet and to target that species for extermination. Disguised under the progressive mantle “environmentalism” , this emerging field of pseudo-science should more accurately be labeled “biological xenophobia.”