Emma Marris’ New Book Asks How to Be a Good Human

Image courtesy of Denver Public Library

Emma Marris’ Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World is a guide into some of the most challenging and controversial aspects of wildlife management and stewardship of the non-human world. From zoos, to captive breeding programs, to how we protect endangered species and threatened ecosystems, to the very concepts of “nature” and “wildness,” Marris sets out to question all of the ethical decisions conservationists, ecologists, and land managers take for granted when they interact with non-human entities and environments. Her stories of animals and ecosystems at risk will tug at your heart strings, but Marris will have your brain tugging back as she questions which of our emotional impulses we can really give credence to. 

I have a love-hate relationship with pop-philosophy books. They often over simplify concepts I want to know more about, or just make flagrant errors in the name of “readability,” a concept many of my favorite authors seem to readily disavow. Marris, by some magical talent I am studying to steal for my own Fun Fact Science Corners, manages to make what other pop-philosophy texts serve up as boring exposition into fun and intriguing dilemmas of conservational ethics. She asks far more questions than she answers, but when our ecological problems are so vast and far reaching, asking more questions is exactly what we should be doing.

One of the things that makes Wild Souls so powerful is that it uses philosophical reasoning and thought to investigate the problems of non-human ethics, but it’s not afraid to listen to and attempt to understand our emotional impulses towards these problems. For example, Marris begins her book by recounting a visit to Hawai’i where she met with conservationists and saw the ‘akiki, a highly endangered bird endemic to Hawai’i. After seeing all of the work that goes into protecting the ‘akiki from disease, habitat loss, and predation by introduced pigs and rats, Marris was underwhelmed when she actually saw the bird. “… a species that may not exist a decade from now — was fluttering around us. I searched inside for Big Feeling, but I sensed I was forcing it.” 

The bird itself was a small, unassuming grey songbird, but to the conservationist who had taken her to see it, the bird meant so much more. Marris asks, why is this bird so valuable? Sure, this single bird she saw had value as a living thing, but so do the myriad song sparrows that we can find strewn across Reed’s campus. What is it about the ‘akiki that garners so much attention? Conserving species is important to so many of us, to Marris too, but why? Can we have ethical obligations to an abstract concept like a species? At the outset of her book, Marris isn’t quite sure, but she sure feels like a species should have value, that we should value having lots of different species around. But often, Marris argues, ideas of biodiversity or, as we’ll talk about later, “genetic purity” are more human desires than they are objectively valuable things in an ecosystem.

These human feelings are real, and Marris isn’t afraid to admit that they have value. Later in the book, Marris looks at a project to feed dwindling populations of polar bears. As ice sheets melt, polar bears are less able to hunt seals for food. Their populations suffer as they scrounge landfills for anything resembling a meal. These dying populations of bears are incredibly difficult to care for, and their care raises many ethical questions. If we want to feed them well, we would have to hunt their natural diet, seals. Is going around killing seals really ethical? What if we fed them agricultural scrap meat? It  would be a lot healthier for the polar bears than starving would be, and the meat isn’t going to a better use. But such a polar bear feeding program would be wildly expensive with costs of transport as well as staffing for polar bear feeding stations. This help for the polar bear populations wouldn’t be sustainable, and polar bears aren’t all that critical to the ecosystems where they’re dying out, so why don’t we just let these dwindling populations go? And what about the polar bear’s freedom and dignity, is living on human scrap meat even a dignified existence for the polar bears? One of the most compelling arguments, to Marris, for polar bear feeding operations is for cultural reasons. In the areas where polar bears are dwindling, they’re highly regarded by and culturally important to local indigenous peoples. They see the bears as non-human kin that they have an obligation to care for. To Marris, these human concerns are just as, if not more, important than ecological justifications could hope to be.

Cases like the polar bears and the ‘akiki raised a myriad of questions for Marris. One of them being about “wildness.” ‘Akikis — and maybe someday polar bears —  would not exist without human intervention. If humans stopped setting rat traps and stopped maintaining one small section of forest to be favorable to the ‘akiki, they would all die. How is this bird, and how are hand fed polar bears, in any meaningful way, wild? To Marris, they seem more like very expensive pets than they do “wild” animals.

    In her second chapter, Marris sets out to understand what our ethical obligations to individual animals are. She surveys a wide variety of complex animal behaviors that illustrate abilities to reason, to adapt, and she shows animals behaving socially, mourning, feeling. It seems very clear to Marris that animals have an experience of life, what philosopher Thomas Nagel calls, the “subjective character of experience.” The subjective character of experience is an idea that comes from mind-body duality. Mind-body duality posits that our mind — our experience of life, our consciousness, the part of you that is understanding the words on this page right now — is something distinct from the physical body that it is associated with. If you’re a mind-body dualist, you believe that we’re more than just sacks of flesh. Marris is a dualist, but one of my gripes with Wild Souls is that just after talking about the subjective character of consciousness, Marris cites neurological studies that talk about the abundance of neurological substrates which generate consciousness across taxa. Basically, the studies say that there are parts of the brain which are responsible for consciousness and that those parts of the brain are found in lots of different animals. But this goes against dualism. If you think consciousness is separate from flesh, then “neurological substrates which generate consciousness” is a nonsense phrase. It’s a minor gripe, I know. I agree with Marris’ final assertions that we have ethical obligations towards animals, but she also cites lots of behavioral studies that prove her point without interfering with dualism. Why couldn’t she stick with those?

    Another concept that comes up in the early parts of the book is the idea of “flourishing,” and one of the stories that Marris tells to help us understand is that of an Akbash sheepdog in northeast Washington state that ran away with a pair of wolves who would come by the house where the dog lived. One day the dog jumped its fence and decided to live with the wolves. Turns out dogs are not that genetically distinct from wolves, and they can get along just fine provided that the dog is big and strong enough to rough it out in the wilderness, which this Akbash was. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife was none too pleased about this. Because wolves were considered an endangered species in the state of Washington, officials were concerned that breeding with dogs would sully the wolve’s gene pool, potentially replacing all wolves with wolf-dog hybrids. The pregnant wolf was tracked, tranquilized, caught, and spayed. Marris says that we should allow animals to flourish, meaning we should allow them to come into their own, to grow and live meaningful lives. How do we do that? Marris says that the animals themselves know best. We should let animals do what they want, because they want to flourish. Marris values this flourishing above concerns of genetic purity.

This review just scratches the surface of the topics Marris covers. Her case studies are all incredibly intriguing and they’ll have you wracking your brain over the ethics of everything from rat poison to owl sex. If you’re already interested in life sciences, I can’t recommend this book enough. It will overturn so many of the assumptions you didn’t even know you were making when it comes to assessing and managing ecosystems. If you’re new to the field, this is a wonderfully entertaining and informative foray into some of its most exciting topics. A warning, however, before you crack its spine: Wild Souls is certainly not a neatly packaged, loose-ends-tied kind of book. This book leaves you with far more questions than answers. Marris is ready to plague you with doubt and indecision in the face of moral dilemmas, but you’ll be amazed at how much your baffled inability to answer what seemed like easy questions will teach you.

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