931 people took part in this 4-question poll (and lots of you emailed me about it too).
It was all about choices – if you could save a species, which species would you save? You were put in a position where ‘all of them’ wasn’t a possible answer and so, perhaps, our choices (because mine reflected yours) do reflect our feelings about which species are more important to us.
The first choice was between saving the Blue Whale and something called the Reddish Parachute Spider (which is a real species) which is ranked by IUCN in the same category of threat – both are Endangered species. It didn’t surprise me that 82% of us chose to save the Blue Whale.
But that’s not because we hate spiders, because given the choice of saving that same spider and saving nothing then 92% of us chose to save the spider. That tells us that we would rather save species than not save one but if the species is a spider then we’d rather save the Blue Whale than the spider. I’m not surprised – are you?
The spider had another outing in question 3; this time it was up against two ‘species’ – the two viruses that cause smallpox. 89% of us chose to save the spider and lose the smallpox viruses. Again, I’m not surprised. The smallpox viruses are ‘extinct in the wild’ as smallpox has been eradicated, and they may well be totally extinct but you have to wonder whether there are a few vials containing the viruses sitting in military installations somewhere in the world. There aren’t many examples of species which many people don’t like and these viruses were the best I could come up with.
And so, I was interested to see what we would think about the last choice; save the two smallpox viruses or let them go extinct? Most people would choose their extinction – 64% of us voted that way. Which does mean that 36% of us voted for their survival. I know from emails I have received that some found this choice uncomfortable – they were torn between feeling that any species deserved to be saved and the feeling that smallpox was a terrible disease and the world would be a better place without it.
I don’t think there are many species in the smallpox virus category for most of us. I struggled to find an example. Can you think of any more examples? Can you think of a vertebrate example? Anyone saying the Brown Rat?
So I suspect that we would want to save most species if we could (easily, without effort or expense). But I am pretty sure that we would be able to develop a hierarchy of species and types of species which we would rank above others. Blue Whale would rank higher than most species I reckon. Generally, birds and mammals would probably do well – that’s my prediction!
There are scores of PhDs to be written on this subject – maybe they already have been but I haven’t seen them. Would it be possible to construct a league table of our likes using this method? Would different cultures rank species differently? If we have more information on the species does it affect our decisions a lot or a little? Have fun! I think it is interesting rather than useful.
I started thinking about this, it may not surprise you, when writing about the extinct Passenger Pigeon. Do I wish that the Passenger Pigeon had survived (read the book next year for the answer)? Do I wish we could have the Passenger Pigeon back (read the book next year for the answer)? And I wrote a little about this issue of choices and then decided to cut it out – but it was sufficiently interesting, I thought, to form this poll and blog post.
I know that I would have driven anywhere in the USA this spring to see a colony of Passenger Pigeons but I didn’t even stop the car to look for a Henslow’s Sparrow even though I knew where to look, and drove past it twice. John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson each wrote in glowing terms of the Passenger Pigeon but neither sparkled in their writing of Henslow’s Sparrow. I think we have quite strong preferences for species with the ‘Wow!’ factor. And I think we are a bit embarrassed about that. Do you think we should be?
In fact, what do you think about any of this?