Perfection or Prejudice? A look into the effects of anthropocentric conservation
By Madison Meades
Photography by Sufyan Mirza
We’ve all heard the story of the ugly duckling: The unfortunate tale of an ultimately beautiful creature cast aside when young, due only to his “homely” – ugly – demeanor. This tale, however exaggerated, is not unheard outside the context of ducks and swans. Appearance-based judgement is a prominent feature of human society, whether it be for people, food, clothing, or in the context of this article, animals.
Unfortunately for many other living creatures, being deemed “unpleasant” could be the deciding factor between life and death. With an ever-growing human population on a finite planet–one that we share with around 8.7 million other species¹–space and resources needed for survival become increasingly valuable. For us, this problem is scientifically approachable, as we are able to calculate and designate our resources as wisely as we can. However, animals do not have that luxury and are unfortunately at the mercy of our choices.
As resources dwindle so do populations, and for many this could be fatal. Many studies have concluded that in recent years, human-induced endangerment and extinctions are far beyond normal levels as compared to previous centuries². Therefore, as many would argue, it morally and ethically becomes our responsibility to ensure the survival of our earthly neighbors. This however, now puts us in a tough position of having to choose which species will receive our efforts to live–and which ones will not.
According to scientist E. Small, the ability to conserve, restore, or remediate any portion of remaining wildlands falls on the shoulders of organizations, political leaders, and most importantly, the public³. The problem is, publicly, it’s much more convincing to sway people’s interest by appealing to their hearts rather than their heads. For that reason, the faces of conservation are the lions, pandas, bears, and elephants, rather than the amphibians, fish, insects, or plants. This is because “the animals to whom we feel the greatest attraction are those whom we deem, because of their morphology, to be cute.”
“The majority of the world’s threatened species are insects, but except for butterflies and bees, most are usually perceived very negatively. Unfortunately, numerous animal groups in dire need of conservation, such as frogs and snakes, are decidedly handicapped by both their appearance and behavior⁵.” This is extremely problematic for all the other homely species who rely on us for their safety. This subconscious judgment that we pass based on beauty, size, and human benefit makes much less sense in conservation terms.
For instance, “A whale is just a giant fish and, if not for its size, it would hardly be noticed” ⁵. This example is undeniably true; however, it is questionable whether anyone ever realizes this bias. There is a countless number of illustrations of this subconscious favouritism. For instance, culturally, “humans admire heroes, but fear and despise villains⁵”. Therefore, animals that exhibit villainous behaviour like foxes, hyenas, snakes, rats, sharks, or vultures that can be described as deceitful, greedy, murderous, or sly often suffer due to their fearsome public image⁵.
Many of the animals which we overlook or condemn in such a way are incredibly useful and ecologically necessary for human survival⁵. As well, several of these species tend to be much easier and much cheaper to protect, which substantially tests our willingness to choose between quality (lesser amounts of “better” animals) versus quantity (larger amounts of “less preferred” animals). Moving forward, these types of judgements will shape ecosystems and drastically affect the kind of world we will be living in, be it 5, 50, or 100 years down the road. Our anthropocentric tendencies will be at the heart of future biodiversity, therefore making the choices we make today in the present, all the more important.
Appearance-based discrimination is a human trait that has been unfairly cast upon the rest of the living world, where it ultimately doesn’t belong. Therefore, the common understanding of what’s important is “not that we suppress our natural admiration for certain life forms, but that we moderate our prejudices with understanding for the value of all species³” in order to preserve the seemingly unliked, unappealing, and unprofitable ugly ducklings.
Without them, there is no knowing what direction biodiversity, and the future of our planet, could head in.
For more information, I’d strongly suggest reading Ernest Smalls’s “The New Noah’s Ark: Beautiful and Useful species only”.