Questions of human intervention

Preamble: Star Trek’s Prime Directive

This post doesn’t venture to make assertions, but raise questions. Most of these thoughts raised from (of course) numerous episodes of Star Trek series (Enterprise, in particular). As some of you readers may know, in the Star Trek Universe; as well as horrific violations of laws of physics; part of the Federation’s way of operation is avoid intervention with life forms which have not reached a certain degree of social and technological advancement. This may involve respecting the laws of civilisations which we may consider abhorrent, or prematurely introducing technologies that are too advanced for the civilisation to deal with safely.

There have been occaisions of course, when certain Federation citizens (usually/infamously Captain Kirk as well as the lesser known Captain Archer) have intervened, which leads to unintended consequences, some of which, negative. The notion of non-intervention seems to time and again justify itself by instances when it is not observed. I’d like to consider in this post, instances and issues of intervention.

1. Intervention with ecosystems

There are many well established issues of intervention within the natural world. Human intervention and the pursuit of resources and industrial production has destroyed faunae and florae on a specii level probably back from the time human’s learned how to sail ships and forge bronze weapons.

The issue of intervention, or nonintervention has varied dimensions: consider the following:

a. “Due to human impact, some species will become extinct”

Statement a. is one which many people would consider to attempt to save species on largely sentimental grounds. It is certainly true that many faunae and florae species have come to extinction as a result of human impact. To acknowledge it is one thing, but to attempt to save such species as a moral imperative seems very curious. What reasons can we, and should we offer to attempt to attempt preservation of such species? Are there good reasons and bad reasons? Furthermore, shouldn’t there be an internal discussion between the proponents of preservationists so as to establish the proper reasons?
An example of a bad reason would be – “x is a cute species, we should save it”, what about the uglier species? Partiality is exactly the reason that caused extinction (namely, partiality to human preservation and flourishing viz industrial society

b. “Due to human intervention, some species will be saved from extinction”

What if homo erectus was saved from extinction and then homo sapiens was never allowed to flourish? It is the nature of species and system survival, that some species live on and adapt; while others do not survive. The notion of preservation may be an intervention into the development of species. Perhaps homo sapiens is too ambitious to think it plays dominion over other species not only in its action of eradicating species (albeit unintentionally); but in its explicitly intentional efforts to preserve species.

it may be pernicious to the future development of species to allow some to artificially stay on in an ecosystem when it lacks the capacity to survive. Perhaps its extinction was inevitable. To preserve a species may be the cruel option. If we are to preserve a species, I would ask, ‘who are we preserving it for?’ Ourselves? our smug sense of sentimentality? or the wellbeing of the species and the wider biosphere? Either way, preservation or not; we have no option of nonintervention here.

c. “Human intervention as it is, is inevitable and natural”

Perhaps theories of natural selection may advance if we come across other living forms beyond earth. Perhaps they have naturally eradicated most of the species that they could not use either domestically or that they didn’t care enough to preserve. The issue of intervention with other life forms on earth has become complicated in relation to the notion of how biological systems face natural selection. It is like the complication of the observer in social research recognising that she is herself a member of the social phenomenon, and her intervention diminishes the findings of the research. Homo sapiens is a result of natural selection, and what happens next with other species, will be part of the narrative of how natural selection develops when one species has such influence over other species and systems that their very mortality lay in humanity’s balance.

2. Intervention with microbial level life

This is a slightly different, but related question. Most people did not have any moral compunctions towards eradicating smallpox, and I’m certain that many people would like to destroy the common cold, or HIV/AIDS. Human intervention seems inevitable on such microbes as they pose a great threat to many people. While adaptation occurs, modern medicine has found ways to counteract the waiting process of a thousand or so years to develop immunities. Is modern medicine a nuanced form of genocide toward these viruses and microbial level species?

One might ask, why is it that its bad to put the Panda near extinction but no one considers smallpox? How far does one go in a justified degree of intervention?


One thought on “Questions of human intervention

  1. Sinistre: This is an interesting discussion. I raised the problem of “survival of the cutest” back in 2006, in a piece that now feels a little old. (My early pieces all seem so muddled now.) I became concerned about this when I thought about the role the poster animals have in conservation.

    The issue of non-intervention in the context of other species is one that interests me greatly, for as you say here we simply don’t have the option not to interfere at this point. But the idea of just letting extinction take its course is a dangerous one if that outcome also means our own extinction. In terms of deciding what to preserve, pragmatism as well as aesthetics must be brought to bear. Once a biosphere is sufficiently depleted of diversity, it collapses – with catastrophic results.

    Stephen Jay Gould made good arguments along the lines you sketch here, in that it is important to distinguish between a species that is going extinct and would have done so anyway and one which is going extinct expressly because we have shafted its environment. I think the essay in question is in “Bully for Brontosaurus” but I could be wrong.

    And you talk of genocide with respect to microbes, but of course we are also actively engaged in providing an environment for selecting stronger and nastier microbes. We have powered them up by opposition. I wonder whether a medical policy of non-violence towards microbes might not have been a wiser choice! After all, via inoculation we do not eradicate a kind of microscopic life but rather invite it along for the ride.

    Best wishes!

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