October 01, 2006


I was watching a show on Animal Planet this afternoon about snakes. The show asserted that if it were not for snakes, the planet would be overrun by rodents. In the show's conclusion, the narrator reiterates that snakes absolutely must be saved from extinction at the cost of our own survival.

We don't even know it, but without the Indian macaque monkey, hordes of bullet ants would ravage New York City and crush the world economy.

This idea that people can't survive without this or that order, family, genus, or species seems very old to me, but I'm not sure when it started exactly. I've been taught this since I was very young, though.

As I was watching this show on snakes, though, I thought, "Why not just poison the rats?" or why wouldn't people just find a way to keep the rodent population in check. Why couldn't we breed an army of bird spiders trained to hunt rats and mice and unleash them on the subways of New York and save the world?

And then I realized that this idea that we can't survive without snakes assumes that people wouldn't do anything. At best.

At worst, it assumes that people can't do anything to stop rodents, bullet ants, cockroaches, sea nettles, or pachyderms from taking over the planet. No, humans are impotent in the face of nature's onslaught. It's a good thing we have ladybugs, geckos, meerkats, and naked mole rats to keep those ravenous hippopotomi at bay.

I think that extending the benefit of the doubt to this idea is a bit too generous. Either consciously or unconsciously, those who propogate the notion aren't speaking with the precision of scientists and accountants.

It's more precise, even if misleading, to assume that people would not do anything to stop rodents in the event of serpentes extinction and that no other animals would rise to fill the gap in the biosphere because if you try to speculate that something like that would happen, although you could reasonably project some outcomes based on existing data, in the end you're just guessing. And to outline your assumptions in providing speculative outcomes like that would take a very long time.

Case in point: the show I was watching said that "apart from humans, snakes are the most widely adapted species on the planet."

Now, I and other common folk might refer to snakes as a species, and the word has come to refer to broad, rather than specific, categories of animals in conversation, but following precise, taxonomic convention, they're really an order. Ok. I just looked it up and apparently, they're in sub-order, serpentes.

I think that only a person who is both very precise but constrained by some need for parsimony would allow a potentially misleading statement stand without the qualification of what the major assumption is for their conclusion.

This snake show on animal planet, however, is not concerned with that level of precision. In addition to the sloppy use of words and lack of technical information in the show, the fast-cut editing of the video footage tells me that the creators of the show are more interested in entertainment than education. There's no shame in that, but now that we know our source, we can know their meaning a little better.

Adding to the point, we could just assume that the people who say these things actually do mean what they say. If all the snakes died off, then rodents would overrun the planet. Regardless of any action taken by people to ward them off or control them, rodents really would take over if it weren't for the thin green line of protection we have in our friends of the sub-order serpentes. People are just helpless against rodents.

That is rubbish and utter foolishness.

What person can stand in the glare of rocket engines that carry high tech satellites into orbit around our planet or launch them deep into space and say that people are not inventive enough to fend off rats? The irony of projecting that message over the airwaves to millions of viewers in their home in color and high definition is really just too much.

I think these are the same people who think that global warming will be the end of human civilization because it seems predicated by an assumption of human helplessness in a hostile and precariously balanced universe.

I really don't see a problem with arguing that this animal or that one should not be driven to extinction. At the very least, it seems like we could study the critter and learn more about how to deal with reality. To singularly present the problems we would face if some animal or another went extinct strikes me as fear-mongering, which isn't surprising when combined with a malevolent universe premise as described above.

I submit that if snakes or anything else went extinct, we would just deal with it. I have a similar opinion about global warming/cooling/bipolar disorder, by the way.

Posted by: Flibbertigibbet at 02:17 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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1 You said:

"...the video footage tells me that the creators of the show are more interested in entertainment than education. There's no shame in that, but now that we know our source, we can know their meaning a little better."

I think that shows on channels such as the Animal Planet need to be careful about entertainment-versus-education. Many people assume that when they watch documentaries on these channels, they are receiving at least a layman's explanation of the science the shows contain. If the creators of the show are propogating untruthful information in a format that is supposed to present truth to a non-expert, then that is intellectually dishonest, in which there would be shame. Only by making it obvious that their primary focus is entertainment, and not education, would it not be so, which would really seem to go against the purpose of running an educational-style program. I mean, how could a show about the nature of snakes not be educational in intent?

(Next on Animal Planet: *Rodents on a Plane*. It's up to snakes to save the human race!)

Posted by: Justin at October 02, 2006 05:22 AM (ToYLF)

2 Interesting point, Justin.

I found the show to be on par with my science classes up to about 8th grade. The only difference was cooler video footage.

At the same time, I have a rather low opinion of the quality of education I recieved.

It makes me wonder if my schools were mixing up the balance between education and entertainment as well. It would not be a surprise given the mainstream philosophy of education these days.

Posted by: Trey Givens at October 02, 2006 01:43 PM (hSSAt)

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