Not Merely Another Animal

Five years ago, I told BreakPoint listeners about the relationship between people and the giant panda. I pointed out an unfortunate truth about this star of zoos and fundraising campaigns: Almost everything it does seems designed to ensure its extinction.

People didn’t like hearing discouraging words about this bamboo-munching icon of the wild then, and they don’t like hearing it now—but at least I’ve got some company.

That company is Chris Packham, a British naturalist and nature-show host. In an interview, Packham said that it was time to “pull the plug” on the panda and “let them go with a degree of dignity.” He said that the panda “of its own accord, has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac.”

That “cul-de-sac” includes a diet comprised almost entirely of bamboo, a substance that both lacking in nutrients and difficult for the panda’s carnivorous digestive system to process. It includes difficulty in mating, tiny infants, and mothers whose maternal instincts include rolling over onto their newborns and suffocating them—that is, when they aren’t neglecting them.

This “cul-de-sac” is why Packham thinks that the resources devoted to saving pandas should be re-directed to saving “less glamorous species—bugs, bats, rodents and plants—and to whole habitats.”

It isn’t only pandas that Packham is prepared to “pull the plug” on. He has said much the same thing about tigers, condors, and even whales, which he calls “big blubbery things.” He thinks that conservationists need to be more “pragmatic and less emotional.” As he put it, “I would eat the last panda if I could have all the money we have spent on panda conservation put back on the table.”

Not surprisingly, Packham’s fellow conservations disagree. Mark Wright of the World Wildlife Fund, whose logo features a panda, called Packham’s comments “daft.”

If by daft, Wright means stupid or insane, I disagree. Packham’s comments make perfect sense if you’re coming from both a utilitarian and Darwinian perspective. For the price of postponing what may be the inevitable for 1,500 pandas and a few thousand tigers, we can save far more numerous species and entire habitats.

In any case, why should a dominant species like man care about one that is struggling to survive—especially one it doesn’t require for its own survival? Natural selection is indifferent to the plight of the panda, no matter how cute it is.

Well, we do care because man is not merely another animal and he is capable of more than simple utilitarian calculations. Man, created in the image of God, can transcend self-interest and make sacrifices for the sake of struggling fellow-creatures, whether those creatures walk on two legs or four. His altruism has a divine, not a material, source.

Man can also teach his fellow man that he is a steward, and not merely an exploiter, of the rest of creation. His self-understanding is moral and spiritual, not just biological.

That’s why we won’t “pull the plug” on the panda. The only thing daft about that is forgetting the real reason we won’t pull the plug.

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