October 24, 2001
California Wilderness Coalition
2655 Portage Bay East, Suite 5
Davis, CA 95616
Re: "Where man himself is a visitor who does not remain"
From time to time it has become fashionable to see "native" peoples as role models of sustainable living and something akin to "native" species that are a natural part of their ecosystems. Hence the two articles on pages 18-19 in your latest "Wilderness Record". While this may serve a short-term political purpose (i.e., gaining the support of "Native Americans" and their supporters), in the long term, it is not honest and can only lead to ecological harm. To wit:
While I sympathize with the plight of native peoples, vis a' vis modern culture, and regret, as a fellow human being, the loss of their culture, I don't think it's possible to preserve their way of life, due to inevitable contact with modern culture. What we end up with is people who claim to be preserving an ancient culture, but who pursue whales in motor boats with high-powered harpoon guns, or clear-cut timber with modern machinery. There hasn't been enough time or genetic separation for us to be all that different from native peoples. (Wildlife have a hard time distinguishing between "native" Americans and other Americans….) They have good people and bad people, and we have good people and bad people. They have good ideas and bad ideas, and we have good ideas and bad ideas. We have caused species extinctions and ecological disasters, and so have they. The main difference between us is that we have oil and machines. When native people acquire the accoutrements of modern culture, they become almost indistinguishable from us.
It is simple to see this, if you take the point of view of wildlife. Humans have been in North America about 10,000 years. For that reason, native Americans feel at home here. But how does that compare with the length of time that wildlife has been here? There is no comparison! Biologically, humans are, throughout most of their range, a rank newcomer, and hence an exotic species.
In a letter to Jane Goodall, I wrote: "What makes a species a native? A native species is basically one that has been in a given location for a long time. However, every species is a newcomer at some time, so how long does it take to become a 'native'? I think that the most sensible answer is: the length of time that it takes the other species in that ecosystem to evolve to adapt to it. That (successful mutations) happens on the evolutionary time scale, hence on the order of millions of years. That would make humans native only to Africa, and everywhere else an exotic species (newcomer). That is not a value judgement, merely a biological description of our place in the ecosystem.
"However, even in Africa, the rate at which human behavior changes implies that the only organisms that can really keep up with us are viruses and bacteria. I think that this implies that we should act as if we are an exotic species: i.e., with great restraint! We are simply too powerful a force to be able to coexist with any other species. There are a few that have been able to coexist with us to some degree, but in general, we are a bull in their china closet (or, as I like to say, the ants at every other species's picnic).
"To see the effects of humans on wildlife, it is not very useful to look at the 'steady-state' situation that obtains after long cohabitation. The most definitive test is to look at what happens when humans first arrive at a given location. In every case, we have decimated the local species (e.g. see The End of Evolution, by Peter Ward). I think it is time to stop pining for a romantic past that never existed (except in the Old Testament of the Bible), face the reality, as unpleasant as that might be, and start listening to what the wildlife are really telling us.
It is certainly amazing and inspiring to learn about wildlife, but we have placed artificial limits on that knowledge, so that the unpleasant, "inconvenient" facts are filtered out (even by scientists, who should know better -- or have I idealized them too much?).
"As you say, 'an experience of wilderness changes people for ever'. Yes, sometimes, but not always in a positive way. It could just as easily open their eyes to more resources to exploit. It is not guaranteed to make them an environmentalist or deep ecologist, and we shouldn't assume that it does! Sure, it is necessary to experience wilderness, in order to appreciate it. But that needn't be often, nor need it be pristine wilderness. There is a degree of wildness on every leaf!
"By the way, I think that children grow up loving the type of surroundings they experience when young. If they grow up on concrete, they will tend to love concrete. So I think that every time a child is born, we should execute a ceremony: they should first be introduced to their mother, then to their father, and then taken to see some wilderness. Where else can they learn the way the world is supposed to be? Of course, they should also be taught to respect and stay out of that wilderness, as much as possible."
I value "native" culture as much as you do, but to be honest, we have to admit that when there is a conflict between preserving human culture and preserving biodiversity, we have no real choice: we have to side with wildlife. Humans are far more flexible than wildlife, and can survive just about anywhere. Wildlife, on the other hand, require certain specific conditions, and die if they can't get them. Besides, we have pushed them up against the wall, and destroyed most of their options.
It is high time that we stopped operating on the premise that "it is nice to preserve wildlife, as long as we remember that humans always come first!" Wildlife needs habitat off-limits to humans. All humans. Like they had for the four billion years before we arrived here. Native Americans should not be living in national parks or wildlife preserves, unless they are government employees whose job is to help us preserve native wildlife (as is done in Australia). In fact, I think that many of them would make excellent stewards of these lands, especially if trained in modern conservation biology. But to live there just because their ancestors did is to continue an anthropocentric view that is badly outdated.
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
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