Eyeless Spiders and the End of Species

If some smidgen of bacterial goo was found on a faraway asteroid, it would be the discovery of the year, perhaps the century. Life on Earth would not be alone! Yet when it comes to the life that surrounds us, people can be remarkably cavalier, even downright callous: What’s another frog species more or less? What’s it do for us, anyways?

That’s the question Wired asks in its coverage of a September 11 report from the Zoological Society of London and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (two separate groups). Their report, titled “Priceless or Worthless?”, lists the top 100 species closest to extinction. The report’s authors, according to a press release, “hope[s] to push the conservation of ‘worthless’ creatures up the agenda that is set by NGOs from around the globe.”

Within the conservation movement there seems to be a “what have you done for me lately” mentality regarding the conservation of species. There has been a tremendous effort to attach utilitarian values to endangered species, and nature in general: in other words, to monetize the value of life on the planet. Those species and places that don’t seem to offer value to the human species tend to be ignored. From the press release:

“All species have a value to nature and thus in turn to humans,” says Dr Simon Stuart, Chair IUCN Species Survival Commission. “Although the value of some species may not appear obvious at first, all species in fact contribute in their way to the healthy functioning of the planet.”

Yes! We find species within some systems and not others because they evolved over millenia to be a part of that system. Take away any part, any piece, and the system is no longer whole. It may continue to function, but this is not the same thing. But we humans tend to overestimate our understanding of the natural world, when in fact, we know so little about the biosphere. We are not so much arrogant as ignorant, and we tend to err by ignoring and/or devaluing what we do not know or understand or see. This is the case with the conservation of the small, the mundane, the non-charismatic species in the world.

But there are deeper questions that deserve to be asked, and answered:

“While the utilitarian value of nature is important, conservation goes beyond this. Do these species have a right to survive, or do we have a right to drive them to extinction?” said Jonathan Baillie, the ZSL’s conservation director.

Should this not be the first argument, the first line of reasoning, in dealing with species? That they have value beyond what we assign to them? Don’t they have some inherent value, some inherent worth? Now I understand the utilitarian arguments; they are important arguments, necessary arguments: For one, I happen to believe that these utilitarian arguments inevitably lead even the most utilitarian of us to the deeper questions about inherent worth. I think first we must see that a thing is valuable to us, and then to others of us, and finally to our species. Then we will make the intellectual leap to the value of the species for its own sake.

So, having thought about that, what about this? Workers on a $15 million highway project in Texas have been shut down due to a dime-sized spider no one has seen in 30 years.

Workers found the Braken Bat Cave Meshweaver (Cicurina venii) spider, which hasn’t been seen in three decades, in the middle of a $15.1 million highway construction project in northwestern San Antonio. The eyeless arachnid is on the endangered species list—since construction would disrupt the spider’s natural habitat, the project has been halted for the foreseeable future.

No one said species conservation would be easy. How far can our bio-ethics take us beyond our pedestrian needs for streets and power plants and housing developments? A spider for the comforts of life? Tough one, no?

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