Empathy -- The Missing Ingredient in Conservation Biology

Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

July 2, 2012


We recognize that empathy is essential for understanding and caring for preverbal humans (e.g. infants). It's essential for communication across language barriers, and for marriage (another kind of language barrier), business, education, medicine, criminal investigation, etc. Pet owners don't think twice about routinely employing empathy with their pets. Successful animal husbandry and other forms of agriculture, we know, also require empathy. So why is conservation biology different?


I looked in vain for the word "empathy" in the indexes of all of the major textbooks of conservation biology. How can this be?! Jane Goodall was pilloried for claiming that she recognized human-like emotions in chimpanzees. But have we really advanced at all since then? We know that, genetically, chimpanzees are 98.6% identical to us -- reason enough to hypothesize that empathy with animals is justifiable. And why stop there? We share a sizable portion of our DNA with all living things.


How would the practice of conservation biology change, if empathy were accepted as a legitimate tool? What is the first thing that we learn about animals, as a child? They run away, whenever we try to get close to them! It isn't much of a stretch to conclude that they don't like having us around! If we are to preserve wildlife, we need to provide them with whatever they need including habitat that is off-limits to humans!


How much of a separation is required? Ed Grumbine, in Ghost Bears, claimed that grizzlies can hear us from a mile away, and smell us from five miles away. Are there any parks or wilderness areas where wildlife can maintain five miles between themselves and the nearest trail?


When I submitted my paper on human-free habitat for publication in Conservation Biology, the editor told me that it had already published papers on the subject. But I couldn't find any. Nor can I find any such paper in this conference or any other SCB conference, aside from my own.


Recently the State of California has proposed closing seventy state parks, due to budget constraints. Why am I the only person claiming that this would benefit the wildlife? Are humans really this selfish? Do we really unlike every other species need access to every square inch of the Earth?!




Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.


Grumbine, R. Edward, Ghost Bears. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1992.


Reed, Sarah E. and Adina M. Merenlender, "Quiet, Nonconsumptive Recreation Reduces Protected Area Effectiveness". Conservation Letters, 2008, 19.


Stone, Christopher D., Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1973.


Terborgh, John, Carel van Schaik, Lisa Davenport, and Madhu Rao, eds., Making Parks Work. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2002.


Vandeman, Michael J., http://www.imaja.com/as/environment/mvarticles and http://mjvande.info, especially "Wildlife and the Ecocity", "'Harmless' Recreation Kills Wildlife!", and "Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!"


Weiner, Douglas R., A Little Corner of Freedom. Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachev. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.


"The Wildlands Project", Wild Earth. Richmond, Vermont: The Cenozoic Society, 1994.




We recognize that empathy is essential for understanding and caring for preverbal humans, and yet it is considered inappropriate, even heretical, for application to other species. It is considered "anthropomorphizing", a scientific "sin". On the other hand, we know that we have an enormous amount in common, genetically, with all other species (98.6%, in the case of the chimpanzee). That would tend to support the hypothesis that we have feelings and motivations in common. Even when feelings aren't involved, as with plants, empathy is still possible, and has obvious value. A scan of textbooks in conservation biology confirmed that the word "empathy" does not appear in any of their indexes. A search of Conservation Biology online found only a few instances of its use (notably in a 2002 editorial by Reed Noss). It's high time that we stop doing science and advocacy with one hand tied behind our back! The available evidence supports the legitimacy of empathy, and the need for setting aside areas that are off-limits to humans.