Most right-thinking people today consider the preservation of endangered species to be an ethical imperative. The underlying assumption (correct in the vast majority of cases) is that the endangered species have been brought to the brink as a result of careless human activities. Habitat destruction, hunting, pollution, and other aspects of the modern industrial age have stressed the biosphere so heavily that some ecologists consider it to be a mass extinction event. One of the many animal species facing extinction in coming years is the Tasmanian Devil. However, unlike many others, the Devil is going extinct because of a naturally occurring pathogen: Devil Facial Tumor Disease. This raises an interesting question: Should human beings always seek to prevent the extinction of animal species, regardless of the cause of that extinction?
Facial Tumor Disease
The Devil Facial Tumor Disease is one of the rare and fascinating example of a communicable cancer. Originating some time before 1996, the disease is caused by cancerous Schwann cells that form open, bleeding tumors on the face of Tasmanian Devils. These tumors grow to a point where eventually, the Devil is incapable of eating, and dies of starvation or secondary infection. As aggressive fighting is common among Devils, these cancerous cells can slough off of one animal, and into the open cut of another during these biting tussles. The cells take root in the new animal, and it too becomes infected
Now, I exaggerated when I said earlier that the endangered status of Tasmanian Devils arrived totally without human intervention. The Devil was highly stressed before the Facial Tumor Disease arrived, and face massive habitat loss and incursion from human beings and our domestic animals. However, we are sure to face a situation in the future where humans cannot take a large share of the blame for a species becoming endangered. Extinction is a natural part of the biosphere, and one of the major driving forces to promoting biodiversity. Currently, numerous biologists and veterinarians are working to preserve the Tasmanian Devil against extinction. Is this prudent, though? Is the stagnation of the current biosphere really a goal worth pursuing? Is it even possible to distinguish between a “natural” extinction, and one driven by human activity, given the vast complexity of the ecosystem? If you think I have answers to these questions, think again. I’m as perplexed by this issue as anyone. And I’m lazy. But please, if you have an opinion on this, leave a comment, and start a discussion.