Wildlife Value Shift Due To An Unexpected Path

Published in Sustainability
Wildlife Value Shift Due To An Unexpected Path

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“There are no wrong turns, only unexpected paths.” 

Mark Nepo (2011). The book of awakening: Having the life you want by being present to the life you have. Conari Press.

Nepo’s quote captures our reaction to finding that wildlife values in the Western United States are shifting in a direction that appears favorable to biodiversity conservation. The last several decades show that biodiversity is in serious decline, and many have concluded the solution to this trend is changing human thought and behavior. One might easily assume, and fervently desire, that our findings of wildlife value shift tell a story about how people have become convinced of the negative outcomes of current behavior and thus deliberately made changes for the sake of biodiversity. However, our findings suggest a more unexpected path. 

Our data show a widespread shift from domination to mutualism wildlife values over a 14-year period since 2004. Domination represents a view wherein wildlife are resources to be used and managed for human benefit. By contrast, through a mutualism lens, wildlife are regarded as part of one’s social community, deserving of rights like humans. With domination, wildlife are “others.” With mutualism, they are “one of us.”  Wildlife values have changed because wildlife are being re-classified to be in the same moral community that includes humans.

If this shift was not deliberately orchestrated, then what caused it? We hypothesize a two-step process: First, as western society became more urbanized, educated, and affluent, people were removed from both the risks associated with wildlife and direct dependence on wildlife for subsistence. Second, as people were removed from direct interactions with wildlife, the tendency to anthropomorphize (seeing wildlife as having human traits) increased. This tendency was enhanced through various media that continually depict animals as human-like, as pets, and even as members of one’s family. This process provided the impetus for the change in values toward wildlife.  

So what concrete effect does this shift have on biodiversity? Different values spawn contrasting views of acceptable policy. For example, while domination would support lethal control of wildlife to enhance human pursuits, mutualism supports educational approaches and restraints on humans to protect wildlife. While domination prioritizes economic well-being, mutualism favors protecting endangered species. Importantly, as we look to the future in democratic societies, policy ultimately tends to reflect prevailing social values. This suggests that, if the trend toward mutualism continues, we will see positive outcomes for biodiversity protection.

That would be a tidy ending. However, there is more to this story with other unexpected pathways. As the public increasingly regards wildlife as part of their social community, new problems arise. For example, people visiting National Parks may wish to get closer to wildlife, which poses a danger for both the animals and humans. For wildlife management, this poses new and important challenges to establish norms of interaction that help foster human-wildlife coexistence, rather than simply eliminating ‘nuisance’ animals. Nevertheless, these new challenges would be well worth the trade-off, should the shift in social values help prevent further biodiversity loss.

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Go to the profile of Ronnie Hawkins
over 3 years ago

Dear Professor Manfredo, I appreciated your 2019 article in Biological Conservation, and I think it's high time we all began to make this attitudinal shift from domination to mutualism in our relationships with nonhuman animals. You attribute this shift to a tendency to anthropomorphize, which many in the scientific community still consider mistaken, but as we learn more about the cognitive abilities of many other animals (including the neuroanatomical similarities we share with our close evolutionary relations, and the surprising convergences with our more distant kin), it should be recognized as often being the more parsimonious explanation for much of their behavior. As you and your coauthors noted, "Domination is an intergroup process, whether between human groups or between human groups and nonhuman animals." With all the attention currently being given to ending racism (and all that should be given to ending our other intraspecific group-on-group conflicts, which fuel a considerable proportion of climate change, in addition to causing untold human misery and death), we need to come to terms with the underlying motivation driving our propensity for domination in all of these contexts. With respect to wildlife, one astonishing statistic sums up, for me, the result of the last fifty years of our thoughtless human usurpation of habitat and exploitation of individual animals: according to Bar-On, Phillips and Milo (2018, The biomass distribution on Earth. PNAS 115 (25), 6506-6511, https://www.pnas.org/content/115/25/6506), the total biomass of all remaining terrestrial wild mammals is only about 5% of the biomass of our single human species, and less than 2% of the biomass of us plus our livestock. I find this absolutely shocking, and morally shameful. Further expansion of our human population, and additional takeover of remaining wild lands--particularly for feeding more CAFO-confined livestock or tree plantations to fuel the dubious BECCS "negative emissions" scheme--must be scrutinized in light of the extent of the outrageous interspecific injustice our species has already perpetrated. 

Go to the profile of Michael Manfredo
over 3 years ago

Hello Ronnie!

 Thanks very much for your post and for linking our current Nature Sustainability publication to our earlier Biological Conservation article.  There has, no doubt, been considerable debate over the anthropomorphism topic in the scientific literature. We have drawn from the growing attention to the topic as a psychological process, and we found the two-factor theory proposed by our colleague Urquiza-Haas to be quite practical in informing our understanding of human-wildlife interactions. It is hard to imagine that the value shift we have explored would happen without such an impetus.

 I agree that domination is pervasive and influental in influencing intergroup relations. Our thinking about this was largely influenced by Sidanius and Pratto‘s work on social domination theory which addresses the very topic you mention – interracial oppression.

 Finally, we recognize the well-documented problem of biodiversity loss. Many articles have revealed this, and the one you cite is a profound example. The emergency now is pioneering intentional culture shift, a topic that the social sciences have not exactly been successful at understanding or mastering.


Associated Literature

Urquiza-Haas, E.G., & Kotrschal, K. (2015). The mind behind anthropomorphic thinking: attribution of mental states to other species. Animal Behaviour 109: 167-176. 

Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Go to the profile of Ronnie Hawkins
over 3 years ago

Dear Professor Manfredo—

The idea that there may be different pathways of neural processing for reasoning about the social versus the physical domain seems very much to the point when it comes to understanding what can be two quite different ways for us to relate to nonhuman animals. However, noting that your colleague Esmeralda Urquiza-Haas sets aside “the question about the accuracy of mental state attribution to other animals,” I am somewhat uncomfortable with calling the network for social cognition “the default state of the brain” and viewing these processes as “automatic” or bottom-up, reflective of our own animalistic nature, distinguishing them from “more reflective” processes that may “be influenced by cultural differences” and that, by implication at least, may be more sophisticated or reflective of our better judgment in withholding this more natural but potentially erroneous anthropomorphic attribution of mental states to nonhuman animals. In view of the very limited appreciation of the cognitive abilities (and even common emotional responses) that seems to be currently expressed in our increasingly-global consumer culture, I would locate the more appropriate neuropsychological orientation—which I believe is one of recognizing the existence of a great diversity of mental states, ranging widely across the animal kingdom—at both the “bottom” and the “top” of our cognitive repertoire, with a relatively nonreflective “cultural” defense of the anthropocentric moral boundary occupying the middle ground between these two poles. 

But one of her paper’s references, (Jack et al. 2013, “fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains,” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3602121/pdf/nihms-424462.pdf/?tool=EBI) distinguishes more clearly between “social cognition,” reasoning about the mental states of others, and “physical cognition,” reasoning about “the causal/mechanical properties of inanimate objects,” and reports “clear evidence of reciprocal suppression” between these two brain networks; these researchers report their hypothesis “is that the inhibition between domains is driven by the need to differentiate members of our moral circle from objects suitable for manipulation,” their view being that “the antagonism between domains reflects a powerful human tendency to differentiate between conscious persons and inanimate objects in both our attitudes and modes of interaction.” Unfortunately, dichotomizing between “conscious [and presumably human] persons” vs “inanimate objects” leaves out the entire spectrum of living beings that do not happen to be human, a very common type of dualistic thinking that fosters our “see-no-evil” denial of the moral implications our species’ exploitative relationships with other lifeforms. The Jack paper resonates interestingly with the work of Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emissary, 2009), an impressive tome that explores two markedly different ways of orienting toward what we find before us in the external world (differences of orientation that may or may not be reflected in the cognitive processing of our two cerebral hemispheres), the “most fundamental difference” between them being found in the type of attention they give to the world,” on the one hand a focused, manipulative attention aimed at using an object and on the other an open, receptive attention, amenable to social relationships with other living beings. He expresses a concern that the manipulative use-orientation is becoming increasingly dominant in contemporary culture, a concern of relevance to our treatment of the environment as well as of one another. 

I discuss McGilchrist’s work among others in my paper “Anthropocentrism, Logocentrism, and Neural Networks” (2018; https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/ethicsenviro.23.2.04#metadata_info_tab_contents); I also explored commonalities in our exploitative relations in “Intergroup Justice: Taking Responsibility for Intraspecific and Interspecific Oppressions” (1998; https://www.jstor.org/stable/27766041?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents) more than twenty years ago, a time less fraught with urgency in both realms than we see today. I fervently hope that, with more attention focusing on these issues, we can bring about this “intentional cultural shift”—we haven’t much time left for doing so! 

Go to the profile of Ronnie Hawkins
over 3 years ago

Some further thoughts: 
Absurdly, considering the long evolutionary process that gave rise to the development of the brain in vertebrate animals (presumably it served some survival function in lifeforms that predated us), many people today (including some scientists) still seem to insist that other animals aren’t even “conscious,” or at least try to put it into doubt. While supplying a definition for that slippery word is difficult indeed, in its usual sense it would convey the impression that, if nonhuman animals aren’t “conscious,” what they experience must be like what it’s like for us to be asleep, or anesthetized, unaware of what’s going on, insensate, i.e., they aren’t experiencing anything at all—which of course would seem to license using them as nonliving objects or tools. 

But why would anyone believe such a thing (other than to maintain a state of moral denial)? Upon giving the matter more thought, I believe that the problem begins with assuming that somehow words—“having language”—are necessary for consciousness. This idea has been debated by philosophers—whether or not a dog can have “the belief” that the cat went up the tree, for example—but I think it has been pretty well accepted by now that one can have an understanding of one’s situation in the world and an appropriate orientation toward what’s out there without the necessity of being able to express such things linguistically. I would suggest that we should give some deeper consideration as to how this possible source of confusion may have affected our “reflective” or supposedly better judgment, overriding our initial, bottom-up tendencies to anthropomorphize with other mammals or other vertebrates (reflective judgment considering greater differences in perceptual and cognitive systems may justifiably temper our anthropomorphizing with invertebrates to a somewhat larger degree, though not on a fundamental level). 

Once we overcome this logocentric predisposition to deny mental states—at least “higher” ones—to nonlinguistic animals, questions about “mental state attribution in other animals” should not simply be set aside. But making an effort to theorize about the cognition of other species will be challenging, because there’s a great deal of diversity out there. The African elephant, for example, has a brain around three times larger than ours, and it contains about three times as many neurons (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnana.2014.00046/full); however, the vast majority of them are not located in the cerebral cortex, as with us, but rather in the cerebellum, potentially leading some to assume that they primarily serve a motor function unrelated to higher cognitive abilities. So far, however, we just don’t know what they actually do; interesting research is now emerging, detailing a remarkable degree of interconnection between the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum, seemingly among all the vertebrates (see, e.g., today’s Science: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/370/6523/eabd5059.full). Meanwhile, elephant habitat is being reduced all the time, while individuals are ruthlessly slaughtered for their ivory—they are still treated as “inanimate objects” in the globalizing commodity culture. Perhaps this could serve as a good example of how our “better judgment”—more informed by a growing knowledge revolution—should act in a top-down manner to correct certain cultural inadequacies.

Go to the profile of Ronnie Hawkins
over 3 years ago

I do want to thank you and your colleagues for your groundbreaking work, Professor Manfredo, in opening up this important discussion about how we value wildlife; if the present generation does not overcome the "domination" orientation with respect to the lifeforms with whom we co-evolved, any future human generations may not have that choice.