Pleistocene Park: Darwinism, free market, and conservation

The Economist has a great discussion on a recently proposed idea on wildlife conservation, to create a Pleistocene Park in the great plains of North America (see excerpt below for details).

This seems like an off-topic digression, but it is not. I believe understanding evolution and Darwinism is crucial to the understanding of free market, business competition and strategy. See, for example, "The Natural Laws Of Business" by Richard Koch.

  • Koch said, "According to Bruce Henderson, the founder of the Boston Consulting Group (Sun Bin: Bain, who is among the first few employees hired by Henderson and made the first partner of BCG, created the spin-off Bain Consulting; and Bain Capital, which recently teamed with Haier to bid for Maytag, is a spin-off of Bain Consulting), "Darwin is a better guide to competition than economists." This is an important observation, although perhaps hardly surprising: Darwin's idea of natural selection was, as we have said, in part analogous to the theories of competition of Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith. So, in applying the lessons of natural selection to business, we are in a sense coming home to a common intellectual heritage."
  • Henderson also said the difference between business competition and biological evolution is that one can apply strategy to create and advance one's advantage in business competition, while in natural selection competitive advantage is created largely through random mutational events. (Not entirely true, as the choice of the organism may also help to select which genetic trait to preserve, e.g. male peacock's tail is chosen and selected by the female, songbird train their singing skill and pass to their offspring. Today we can even alter the genes to create gigantic mouse or blue rose.)
  • A free market is thus analogous to earth before human being arrives (and sans "god")
  • Each niche ecosystem (such as the hot-spring sulphur eating bacteria system, tropical rain forest, or an island in the Galapagos) represents an isolated business environment with its special set of rules
  • Geographical barriers such as ocean or mountain are analogous to the boundary for protectionist nations (and also geographic separation between the economies in the old days). Boats and planes represent limited trading between islands. It is now easy to understand why the Eurasia-Africa continent nurtures the most competitive organisms and civilizations (Jared Diamond discussed about this in "Guns, Germs and Steel"), because it is the largest genetic free trade zone.

The pros and cons for the Pleistocene Park idea are already very well described in the excerpt below, so I am not going to enter the debate. I would just note that they should probably start with a fenced colony, following Deng Xiaoping's "Gradualism" principle.

However, it struck me that conservationists seem to lack an overarching objective. Is our objective to save every species currently on earth with our best effort? Or is maximizing biodiversity our objective? The debate arises because these objectives often are in conflict with each other. Without a clearly spelled-out, and quantifiable objective how could a strategy be formulated, let alone implemented?

Let's examine our options

  1. Make sure we do not interfere with Darwin's rule. This is unrealistic. Because homo sapien is already the clear winner. Total laissez-faire means to do nothing, and let homo sapien destroy the rain forest to maximize its population, and bring along those organisms which manage find a niche with the homo-centric ecosystem, i.e., mice, roaches and crows. This is not an option.
  2. Preserve status quo as much as possible: minimize any further change to the ecosystem by limiting human territory expansion, let Darwinism rule in national parks but minimize human intervention of these existing systems, let lions eat antelopes and prevent exotic organism from interfering with indigenious harmony -- this is closest to what the conservationists are doing today
  3. Actively manage evolution and save the "endangered species": e.g., the giant panda santuary -- also part of a separate conservation effort, but effort is more haphazard
  4. Maximize biodiversity. e.g., by creating and set aside (leave alone) multiple isolated ecosystem/biospheres, apart from one macro-system with human beings; and save all endangered species as we could -- this is more said than done as no one really figured out how (or is bold enough to try); except for option 3, which is actually a sub-category of this option

Options 2 and 3 are intrinsically contradictory, as illustrated in this Pleistocene Park debate. One cannot help but ask, "Is protecting endangered species such as the giant pandas an act against evolution?", in other words, should we protect the giant pandas if they are ugly as the hyenas? If not, why is the indigenious ecosystem treated as sacrosant?

Or perhaps we should pursue option 4, in which option 3 is just one of the many means. Option 4 also sort of includes option 2, and brings to us the advertised benefits such as "herbal/natural medicine" from a larger gene pool, and the option to reverse any mistakes (since the gene diversity is preserved) human might make in the future. It is probably premature to claim any of the three options (2-4) is a superior over the others. And there might well be other option. However, what we have today is incohrent and inconsistent. The conservationists need to write down a coherent set of objectives and rules.

If biodiversity is what we are after, we may be able to apply what we have learned in free market back to ecology. i.e. allowing gene flow between geographies would ensure diversification. Create isolated sub-colonies can nurture specialization. As a preliminary conclusion, maybe we should give Mr Donlan a chance to try his idea?


Excerpt below (my excerpts from Economists and WSJ tend to be very long, because they are so well written. I would just have to make the fonts smaller and post the links to encourage people to subscribe to them)

Back to the future
Aug 18th 2005 From The Economist print edition
Michael Long

"Conservationists tend to be conservative. But not always. Here is one strikingly non-conservative conservation idea
PEOPLE and wildlife don't get on too well together. Large mammals, in particular, have a hard time at the hands of humanity. Their habitat gets taken for farms, their bodies for dinner and their heads for trophies. As human populations grow, the pressure increases, and it seems to decline only when people are rich enough to focus on the aesthetic as well as the economic possibilities of wild beasts. Often, such aesthetic appreciation thrives best in the safety of the city rather than in the rawness of the wilderness.
Observing all this, a group of conservation biologists, led by Josh Donlan of Cornell University, have made a modest proposal in this week's Nature. They suggest a piece of ecological arbitrage.
Africa and Asia are continents where wildlife is under particular pressure. Their human populations are growing and their people are not yet prosperous enough to make conservation a higher priority than simply getting by in life. But many of the world's endangered mammals live in Africa and Asia. In North America, by contrast, rural populations are shrinking, people are rich enough to care about wildlife, and many of them do. Moreover, most of the large North American mammals that existed when humanity arrived in the continent are now extinct. When the first immigrants entered North America at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, more than 13,000 years ago (how much more is the subject of vigorous debate), they found a continent full of large mammals—elephants, lions, cheetahs, camels, horses and more. Within a few thousand years most of these animals were gone, probably the victims of overhunting. Their ecological niches are therefore wide open for occupation. What could be more logical, Mr Donlan suggests, than introducing endangered Old World mammals into the New World, thus saving them from extinction while returning wild America to something like the state it was in before Homo sapiens took up residence?
Pleistocene park
Mr Donlan's plan is to create game reserves of a quarter of a million hectares or more in the Great Plains of North America, and populate them with a mixture of native American and alien animals. If returned to grassland (not a stupid idea, as the government now pays farmers large sums not to grow crops on quite a lot of them) the plains could support both grazers and their predators. Beginning gradually on small, private reserves, wild horses, asses and camels would be introduced and biologists could study their effects on the ecosystem. Later, if all had gone well, elephants would be added and finally, to provide predators, big cats. If everything worked on a small scale, the large public nature reserves envisaged as the plan's culmination would then be created. Mr Donlan reckons that the whole process would take about 50 years. “It is important”, as he puts it, “to realise that we're not advocating backing up a van full of cheetahs and kicking them out the door.”
Although none of the animals Mr Donlan and his colleagues propose introducing are the same species as the ones that went extinct, many are related and all would fill similar ecological niches. Elephants, for instance, would help to preserve the grassland by eating shrubs that encroach on it—a role previously filled by mastodons (pictured above). Lions and cheetahs would control the populations of horses, asses and camels much as their sabre-toothed cousins once controlled similar ungulates. Cheetahs would also act as predators of pronghorn antelopes, which can outrun anything around at the moment, and whose speed is suspected to be an evolutionary response to the North American cheetah, now extinct.
In theory, the return of the big mammals would result in more diversity throughout the ecosystem. It would also, the researchers suggest, bring tourists flocking to the Great Plains and provide an alternative income for people there. That may sound fanciful. But, as Mr Donlan's paper points out, there are already some 77,000 large exotic mammals, most of them African or Asian species, roaming freely on private ranches in Texas and, in some cases, attracting paying customers.
Many mainstream conservationists are naturally (in more than one sense of that word) suspicious. Chris Haney, a conservation biologist at Defenders of Wildlife, a voluntary conservation group, fears the effort might detract from what he describes as “more realistic” goals, such as the reintroduction of wolves, bison, grizzly bears and North American elk (not to be confused with the European sort, known to Americans as moose). These reintroductions have faced bitter opposition from some ranchers, farmers and politicians. In Yellowstone National Park, a wolf-reintroduction programme begun in 1995 was ultimately successful, but not before a number of lawsuits were heard, thousands of dollars paid to ranchers for lost livestock, and two of the wolves illegally shot. If programmes like this were seen not merely in isolation, but as the first steps in a grand plan to reintroduce lions and cheetahs, they would be even harder to implement.
Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund US, another conservation charity, has a related objection. He suggests Mr Donlan's idea might be damaging not only to efforts to conserve North American species, but also to the very Old World species it is intended to save. He thinks Mr Donlan is too pessimistic about the chances of preserving endangered animals in their African and Asian homes. Rather than spending money to establish those species in North America, Dr Dinerstein would prefer to see it spent conserving them where they live now.
Both of these objections are sensible, though not overwhelmingly so. But Dr Haney has a more visceral worry, too. Modern conservation is generally against the idea of species being spread into novel habitats, and he opposes Mr Donlan's idea on those grounds, as well.
One reason conservationists try to stop alien introductions is pragmatic—they sometimes do serious damage to native species. Rats, cats and pigs, for example, have wrecked the native fauna of many a small island. But part of the objection to alien introductions has an ideological flavour. There is a feeling that what exists now (or, at least, what existed before man stuck his oar in) is what ought to exist. It is pristine. Shipping in other species is, in a sense, a form of pollution.
Perhaps it is, although such pollution does happen naturally from time to time. But even if such introductions are not the ideal solution, they may be the best one available. Mr Donlan's idea is a big and imaginative proposal to solve a clear and present danger. It is certainly worth some careful scrutiny."

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