Two weeks ago, I wrote about scientists who intentionally killed 80,000 feral goats on one of the islands in the Galápagos archipelago. The effort was in the name of biodiversity and conservation, sure, but was it right? The post spurred some fascinating questions and comments, particularly from Jason G. Goldman, who writes The Thoughtful Animal blog at the Scientific American Blog Network. I put Jason in touch with LWONian Michelle Nijhuis, who just wrote a feature for Scientific American about how conservationists decide which species to save. Below you’ll find their conversation.
Michelle: So what was your first reaction when you read Ginny’s post about the “Judas goat” and the extermination of feral goats in the Galápagos?
Jason: I thought it was actually a fairly clever method of addressing the problems caused by this invasive species. But what was in some ways more interesting to me was the comment made by one of Ginny’s co-travelers: “I really enjoyed the trip, but the one big downer for me was the extermination of the goats and the donkeys and their very anti-Darwin approach…” My assumption was that the phrase “anti-Darwin approach” was meant to suggest that this is a case of humans unfairly intervening in a situation, or “playing God.” But it strikes me as an extremely anthropocentric view of evolution and natural selection. Isn’t human behavior – whatever drives it – itself a selection pressure?
Michelle: That caught my attention, too. We as humans have applied selection pressure to the Galápagos by bringing the goats in, and now we’re applying – or releasing – a different sort of pressure by taking them away. I’m wondering about your perspective as a cognitive neuroscientist – when I read about an effort like this, my logical brain supports the effort to restore ecological processes and biodiversity – but my emotional reaction to the killing of so many goats is different than the reaction I’d have to killing a bunch of invasive cockroaches, or, say, getting rid of a flu virus. Do we feel more concerned about goats and other mammals partly because their brains are more similar to ours?