Diversity provides us with a wide range of objects for various sciences. We enjoy recreational activities in wilderness areas. We might also claim that we should particularly value endangered species due to their rarity. While I believe these to be excellent reasons for valuing environmental diversity, I wish to isolate and show an additional, surprisingly overlooked reason for valuing environmental diversity. I believe a key reason that we value such diversity is that we value the unusual in general.
It is commonplace to call for the protection of environmental diversity. We wish to preserve species of animals, plants, birds, and so on, and the various habitats which support them. A number of compelling reasons have been put forth for valuing such diversity. For example, it has been argued that we should value the preservation of species as we may come to find, at some future point, that certain species can be used in important products. Other species, even if they are not themselves economically valuable, may be of value insofar as they interact with, and support the survival of, economically valuable species. Furthermore, a certain degree of biological diversity is required to help protect us against massive ecological disaster.
Others have argued that we should value environmental diversity as a source of aesthetic values — beautiful species, sublime wildernesses, and so on. Diversity provides us with a wide range of objects for various sciences. We also enjoy recreational activities in wilderness areas — another source of value. Finally, we might claim that we should particularly value endangered species due to their rarity – much as collectors value rare books or recordings.
While I believe these to be excellent reasons for valuing environmental diversity, I wish to isolate and show an additional, surprisingly overlooked reason for valuing environmental diversity. I believe a key reason that we value such diversity is that we value the unusual in general.
Diversity and the Unusual
We can best begin to isolate the value we place on the unusual by considering concrete examples. Consider this brief excerpt from Thoreau’s Walden:
One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with each other. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my woodyard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and the dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging.
Thoreau’s description of the battle goes on for a number of pages. Clearly, Thoreau is quite fascinated by this battle and is absorbed in observing it. His long description of the scene suggests that he also expects his readers to be intrigued. Consider next the following facts about giraffes, taken from a popular book of “nature facts”:
They have bulgy eyes (and use them to see well in all directions), hairy lips, a tongue as long as 18 inches (convenient for curling around leaves), and a 25 pound heart for pumping blood to their extremities. They often eat more than 125 pounds of vegetation every day . When they bend down to get a drink of water, which they can go days without, special valves close to prevent a huge rush of blood to their brains, and their legs spread as if to split.
Clearly, we derive pleasure from experiencing and learning about the natural world. In some cases this is due to a creature or environment being beautiful, in others because it is rare. But frequently our intrigue is simply due to our finding a creature or environment unusual. Ants are not rare, nor are they beautiful, yet they arouse our interest. Giraffes are both rarer and perhaps more beautiful than ants, but our interest seems to be pushed primarily by their unique appearance and unusual features. We are fascinated by the giraffe’s long neck and gangly legs, regardless of its beauty (or lack thereof). In preserving natural diversity we preserve unusual species and environments.
Our fascination with the unusual in the natural world is an aspect of our broader interest in the unusual. This interest is reflected in the existence of museums and galleries that frequently display unusual objects, even if they are not beautiful. The Guinness Book of World Records, and various tabloids also reflect this interest, albeit in a less appealing context. The value we place on the unusual in nature is shown by the large number of people who frequent zoos and parks, and the popularity of documentaries and books on living creatures and their unusual means of capturing prey, attracting a mate, and so on.
Thus, we do value the unusual and the unique — both the manmade and the natural. Still, we may ask whether or not this is a value we should have. After all, there have been cultures which have valued such things as racial purity or the institution of slavery. Clearly, the mere fact that we value something is not sufficient to answer the normative question of whether a given value is appropriate.
Should We Value The Unusual?
Perhaps valuing the unusual is ‘shallow’, and thus not desirable. We can imagine a time not long ago when people would crowd to see so-called ‘freakshows’. They went to see the unusual, but this seems a dubious thing to value. It seems that valuing the unusual may simply be a matter of pointing and gawking at things with which we are not familiar.
In response, we should consider a specific example. There are people who have only a shallow appreciation of music or other arts. Perhaps they only listen to maudlin melodies or the latest hit singles. They may appreciate the beauty of the music to some extent, but their appreciation seems quite shallow. On the other hand, there will be listeners who become knowledgeable about music and composers, can identify various compositional structures, modalities, and so on. Their appreciation of music will likely be much richer and admirable.
I believe a similar range of possibilities exists when we consider the appreciation of the unusual. At its shallowest, it may involve nothing more than a simple-minded gawking at something an individual does not understand. But we can move beyond this, just as we move beyond shallow aesthetic appreciation. In its more refined forms, our appreciation of the unusual creates a sense of wonder and fascination within us. We come to desire an understanding of what is presented to us. We may develop something of a love for certain unusual objects. Thoreau’s absorption in the ants’ battle is hardly shallow.
We derive pleasure from witnessing the unusual. We are often inspired to learn about the objects of our fascination. The unusual gives us stories and information we can share with others. When we are entranced by the unusual in nature we gain a respect for nature and its workings.
Our valuing of the unusual provides important additional grounds for valuing environmental diversity. It supports our intuition that we should value many species that are not aesthetically valuable. It grounds our intuition that we should value species with unusual characteristics even if they are not endangered. On the other hand, it also captures the intuition that we should value species which are rare in terms of population. We value the unusual and we should value the unusual; recognition of this is a crucial step in coming to understand the full value of environmental diversity.