Emma Marris Presents Wild Souls at Reed Biology Seminar

Photo courtesy of UCLA

On Friday, Nov. 5, Emma Marris gave a Biology Seminar on her new book Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World. Marris has written on human and non-human interactions for National Geographic, the Atlantic, the New York Times, Wired, and other publications, as well as occasionally co-authoring papers on environmental philosophy with her husband. In her talk, Marris gave an overview of the main points of her book, and a survey of how moral philosophy has approached non-human ethics in the past.

One of the overarching themes of Wild Souls is unsettling concepts of “wildness” and “natural.” Towards the beginning of her seminar, Marris gave the example of OR4, one of the first wolves to call Oregon home in the 21st century. White settlers of Oregon had a long history of killing wolves that preyed on their livestock, but by 1947 they had finally rendered wolves locally extinct in Oregon. Only in 1999 did a wolf re-enter the state, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) was so at a loss with what to do with it, that they tranquilized it and shipped it back to Idaho. In 2009, ODFW got reports of people hearing wolves howling in Wallowa county. After finding the wolf, they put a tracking collar on him, named him OR4, and he quickly became the most monitored wolf in Oregon history. Marris asked her audience, “How is this wolf wild?” The wolf had five tracking collars put on him over the course of his life. His whereabouts and activities were constantly monitored by ODFW. His health was looked after, and his safety was of great concern to conservationists. At any point in time, if ODFW wanted to, they could find this wolf, tranquilize him, trap him, kill him. And eventually they did. After OR4’s tastes changed from wild elk to domestic cattle, he was shot and killed. Marris suggests that OR4 seems much more like the state of Oregon’s pet than it does a wild animal.

Marris expanded this idea: in a world where humans have settled so much land, use it for housing, agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, tourism, recreation — in a world where every living thing is affected by anthropogenic climate change — what can we really call “wild” or “natural?” Many people’s definitions of these concepts require that humans are not involved, but human involvement is now a fact of life. Marris argues that not only are these ideas of “wild” and “natural” which hinge on a lack of human involvement not actually representative of any ecosystems today, but these concepts are actually harmful. If our idea of what makes ecosystems worth protecting is their “wildness,” and that “wildness” precludes human interference, how are we supposed to have good impacts on our environment? The concept of ecosystems as “wild” limits us to a largely white colonialist understanding of humans’ relationship with nature as adversarial, ignoring ways that many indigenous communities around the world have fostered cooperative relationships with non-humans.

Marris argues that when looking into the ethics of the non-human world, we must try and understand the value that non-humans have. In her seminar, Marris gave an overview of philosophies of non-human ethics, as well as an investigation into some of the ways we attribute value to non-humans. Consequentialists like Peter Singer might argue that, because animals can suffer, it is ethically reprehensible to cause them suffering, and that we ought to reduce animal suffering as much as possible. Deontologists like Tom Regan argue that animals, as beings having conscious experiences, have rights like fair treatment.

Many real human beings, Marris pointed out, don’t actually use these sorts of formulae to understand what they ought to do. We weigh emotions against reason and try to figure it out. But where do we get the foundations for our reasoning? What sorts of things do we have emotional attachment to? While Marris believes non-humans have intrinsic value in their experiences as animals, she rejects the notion that “naturalness” or “wildness” are valuable in and of themselves. She argues that we should not value creatures simply for their indigeneity or their protected status.

To elaborate on her points, Marris turned to what is essentially the environmental ethics version of the trolley problem: killing invasive predators to save native endangered species. As it turns out, there are a myriad of scenarios in which ecologists and wildlife managers decide to forego their ethical responsibilities to individual predator species in favor of a responsibility to a community of prey species. One example Marris gave was that of Tristan’s Albatross, a highly endangered Albatross that only nests on one island in the Pacific. These Albatross are under threat from house mice which were introduced by sailors and prey on the Albatrosses’ young. Ecologists have suggested killing the mice, or laying out poison that kills mammals but not birds, and all sorts of other methods of murderous control. But Marris wanted us to stop and think: is it really okay to kill these mice? She pointed out that what we often value in endangered species is their contribution to biodiversity. Tristan’s Albatross is highly genetically similar to the Wandering Albatross, so much so that its designation as a separate species is contested by taxonomists. The mice that inhabit this island have been so isolated and exist in such different conditions from house mice that they have become highly adapted to their new baby-albatross-eating island lifestyle. They’ve grown larger than the average house mouse and demonstrate a significantly different gene-pool from the rest of the mouse population. Isn’t it detrimental to kill these mice too? If we decided they were a separate species, they would also be endangered. While Marris doesn’t come to a conclusion, her interrogation of this case serves to further trouble our understanding of non-human value and how we have traditionally approached environmental ethics.

Marris posits that perhaps instead of prioritizing what we as humans see as valuable to an animal community, we should let the animals lead the way. Another story Marris told, one very local to us here in the Pacific Northwest, is that of the Spotted Owl. Spotted Owls are only found in old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Historically, they have been threatened by logging operations, but now they face a new threat. Barred Owls, which were once uncommon on the West Coast, have been moving into Spotted Owl territory, displacing and sometimes mating with Spotted Owls. Spotted Owls are highly adapted to the old growth forests that used to be commonplace across the Pacific Northwest; Barred Owls are generalists that just do better in younger forests and more populated areas. While many groups across the Pacific Northwest advocate for control strategies like shooting Barred Owls and trying to prevent their encroachment on historic Spotted Owl territories, Maris argues that we’re just watching natural selection. As Spotted Owls and Barred Owls hybridize, we lose biodiversity according to indices that calculate biodiversity as the outcome of number and abundance of species, but the Spotted Owl genetics are still preserved in Spotted/Barred hybrids. This hybridization which preserves some genetic diversity is not only better than the outright extinction Spotted Owls might face in the future, but also allows for animal autonomy. The Spotted Owls and Barred Owls chose to mate with each other. Who are we to say they shouldn’t? Our anthropogenic interests in preserving biodiversity indices are at odds with the interests of the non-human species we claim to be so intent on helping.

At the end of her seminar, Marris concluded that while she rejects an interpretation of “wildness” that implies “non-human” or “without human influence,” she sees a concept of “wildness” meaning “having individual autonomy” as having a place in the field of environmental ethics. While Marris started her inquiries into animal ethics looking into hard questions of conservation, she has found few answers. That being said, Marris thinks that the process of asking, of investigating, of interrogating, is still a worthwhile one.

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