What is a species?

I mentioned that I have been reading a book by the natural scientist E.O. Wilson. The book is “The Future of Life” and makes his case for what we would call environmentalism. Specifically he focuses on the rapid, man-caused decline of species throughout the world. I believe he wrote the book as a polemic, something to spur people into action.

And for me, at first it worked. You read about the permanent extinction of one species after another and say, “something must be done.” But then you keep reading and a certain malaise strikes. “Aw fuck it… it sounds like an impossible problem.” How exactly can we control the actions of humanity on a planetary scale? Americans can barely get anything done in their country, much less in Africa.

But I have another troubling thought, one I’m sure will anger any reading environmentalists: What exactly are we saving when we save a species from extinction? Or more to the point, do species even exist?

You might recall me exploring a similar point when talking about the controversy over Nicholas Wade’s book on racial differences. Critics of that book argue that the concept of race (a division which correlates to what is often called “sub-species”) is a man-made concept. From a DNA perspective, there really isn’t much separating a black man from a white man from a yellow man etc. (Curious that the only term there that sounds overtly perjorative is “yellow.”)

Of course this observation can be taken further. All labels are merely that, labels. They don’t correspond to any objective truth built into the universe. All words are subjective, though certainly quite convenient.

So what is a species? As I understand it, what separates different species is their inability to mate with each other. Dogs and cats can’t have kids so they are a different species. There are other species that probably could mate but don’t tend to in the natural environment.

There’s a point in the book where Wilson lists several species that were eradicated from New Zealand (I think.) Among these are several versions of something called a hopping mouse. I have to confess reading this thinking, “Is this really the eradication of several species or one? And even if all the hopping mice are gone won’t we still have plenty of regular mice? Is this the calamity Wilson is making it out to be?”

I realize I sound like an utter douchebag to be saying that, but I understand why people start to glaze over when environmentalists list every species of tree frog on the verge of extinction. Non-scientists think of species as categories like “dog” and “elephant.” But in fact the term applies at a more granular* level.

*I have to pause even here and note that the term granular here is again simply a man-made term with no real meaning. The hierarchy it implies does not exist in an objective sense.

This must all seem like meaningless parsing of words designed to induce analysis paralysis. And indeed I do think we should try and save these animals on the verge of extinction. But I’m starting to wonder in treatises like Wilson’s book do more harm than good.

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